Playbook: The Rise of Sneaker Culture

. January 12, 2016.

At the opening celebration for the Museum’s newest exhibit, a DJ mixed Snoop Dogg with other vintage hip-hop songs in the main hall. The museum was filled with people wearing their best sneakers.

The party continued into the Glass Pavilion, where 61syx, a hip-hop dance crew from Grand Rapids, Michigan, took turns spinning on their backs and heads. The crew then judged a sneaker contest where a man with angel-winged Adidas won by a landslide. At the end of the evening, everyone took to the floor, and a dance circle began.

At the far west end of the Toledo Museum of Art, displayed inside glass cases, are not pieces of art, per se, but shoes, more specifically, sneakers. TMA’s newest exhibit, The Rise of Sneaker Culture, shows how athletic shoes have lined the history of sport and leisure, and helped frame popular culture.  

A vast collection

The exhibit’s collection of shoes, on loan through Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, is a collection of history. There are Goodyear sneakers from the 1890s, which are surprisingly contemporary. They look like an all-black pair of Keds. You can see the first Converse All-Stars from 1917, which also look very similar to today’s version.

The exhibit is also filled with modern designs and limited releases. There are high culture sneakers from European fashion houses Lanvin and Gucci, cartoon-bright Lebron James sneakers inspired by James’ devotion to the TV show, Family Guy, and dozens of special releases from many different labels, artists, and designers. The most unique may be a Barack Obama version of the Nike Air Force One, made in 2008 by the artist Jim Lasser in support of Obama’s first campaign, which has President Obama’s face carved into the sole with the message, “A Black Man Runs and A Nation Is Behind Him.”

A chance to interact

The shoes in the exhibit are all behind glass, but there are plenty of opportunities to interact with the collection. In the final room of the exhibit, there are well-lit mats for “shoefies” or photos you take of your own shoes. The Museum has been printing the photos that visitors post to Instagram with the hashtag #tmasneakerculture, and placing them along a wall in the exhibit. Another wall has kids’ colored-in drawings of the sneakers that they would like to someday see.

There are connections to the exhibit throughout the museum. The Henri Matisse ceramic tile wall painting on the bottom floor called “Apollo” now has, alongside it, a “sneaker connection” description of an Under Armour sneaker with the same name. “The exhibit showcases shoes in a way that is comfortable for everyone,” said Heather Moran, the Museum’s Hands-On Educational Coordinator.

A sneaker celebration

The Museum is holding a series of events in connection to the exhibit. On January 16th, shoe collector and designer, Ben Ewy, will be leading a discussion on shoes as status symbols from ancient times until today. The dance group, Hardcore Detroit, will be having a breakdance battle performance on January 28th. And on February 20th, students from Toledo Public Schools will showcase their sneaker-related talents through visual arts, dancing, and spoken word.

Until the end of February, the Museum is asking people to interact with shoes as more than everyday footwear. The Rise of Sneaker Culture is a chance to elevate rubber-soles, to celebrate and debate how they became so important to so many people.

The Rise of Sneaker Cultuer is on display through February 28
Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe St.
419-255-8000 |

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Dorian Slaybod is an attorney happily living in Toledo.