A screenshot of Same Gallery’s Instagram shows the venue empty of artworks only minutes after visitors were allowed to come in and take the work as part of the Stealable Art Exhibition.

“Don’t touch!”

It’s a motto at most art museums and galleries, where so much as inching too close to a painting or sculpture can prompt warnings from disgruntled guards. But an unconventional show in Japan last week embraced the opposite premise, encouraging attendees to not only touch the art but take it off the walls and run off with it, à la the Gardner Museum heist.

All the works included in the Stealable Art Exhibition, held at Same Gallery in Tokyo on July 10, were up for grabs starting at midnight, the designated “burglar time” following the opening reception. The concept was designed to prompt questions about ownership and value in the art world, investigating the relationship between viewer and artist.

“When a work is displayed as something that can be stolen, what kind of work will the artist exhibit?” asks the gallery’s press release. “What happens to the relationship between the viewer and the work?”

According to the Japan Times, the group show of works by Japanese artists like Joji Nakamura and Merge Majurdan was meant to be up for 10 days, with the gallery space remaining open 24 hours and security-free for anyone to walk in freely — and walk out with their freshly-pillaged artistic booty.

But the exhibition’s organizer, Same Gallery owner Tota Hasegawa, may have underestimated the zeal of wannabe art thieves: approximately 200 people visited the show on opening night, many of whom discovered the show on social media and welcomed the opportunity to snatch free art. Videos uploaded on Instagram show throngs of eager (mostly masked) visitors waiting outside the space, with local police intervening for crowd control. The venue was “sacked” in a matter of minutes.

We would like to sincerely apologize to all the residents in the neighborhood and those who could not see the work despite coming at the scheduled time,” reads a statement on the gallery’s website. 

Same Gallery has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...