We speak with Brooklyn Museum curator Lisa Small about the importance of applying scholarship to pop culture, sneaker memories, and what curation means today.

There is perhaps no other item of clothing with appeal as universal as the sneaker’s. As an object of style, comfort, desire, and function, it crosses all demographic lines. None of this is news, of course — they’re about as common a wardrobe fixture as shirts with sleeves, and the relentless, acquisitive impulses of the sneakerhead community have been well-documented. When you examine an object as ubiquitous as the sneaker, though, much is revealed about the society it belongs to, and that’s the thrust of The Rise of Sneaker Culturean exhaustive overview of the sneaker and its cultural impact. Originally shown at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, the exhibit has been expanded for the Brooklyn Museum, and will run from July 10 to October 4. We spoke with Curator of Exhibitions Lisa Small about importing the exhibit, the importance of applying scholarship to pop culture, and what curation means today. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Why did the Brooklyn Museum decide to bring in this exhibit?

I knew about this show because I had borrowed shoes from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto for the Killer Heels exhibit, and I had a chance to go to Toronto while it was on view. I thought it was great, a wonderful example of bringing scholarship to a pop culture item and really explaining a lot about it. And, of course, for Brooklyn, I thought it made sense for all of our demographics. It turned out that the American Federation of Arts, which is a traveling exhibition organization, partnered with the Bata Shoe Museum for this exhibit so it could be seen by people outside of whoever saw it at the Bata Shoe Museum. So, we were excited by that, and they thought Brooklyn, for a variety of reasons — our audience, our track record of fashion exhibitions, and our interest in exploring pop culture — would be a great venue for it. We found room in our schedule, and it just worked out really well.

Frankly, we did have a lot of conversations, because we had Killer Heels [a similar exploration of the history of high heels] on view last fall, and then this is on view this summer. There was a question of, “Are we doing two shoe exhibits in a row? What does that mean?” We had a lot of conversations back and forth but the scholarly strength of this show, the seriousness with which the curator [the Bata Shoe Museum’s Elizabeth Semmelhack] explored the topic convinced us. And we felt in a neat kind of way they could be looked at corollaries, the two exhibitions.


I believe that the version of the exhibit that you are showing has been expanded somewhat from the original —  is that correct?

Yes, there’ve been a few additions, and also different kind of installation design than how it was at Bata. First of all, the gallery we’re devoting to it has a much larger footprint — no pun intended — well, actually, pun intended — than the Bata exhibit. There’s a question of scale, but we also did add a few things. I added a few more of the recent Adidas collaborations. You know, Pharell’s Stan Smiths, Y3 Yohjis, the ultra-cool Rick Owens Springblade. The AFA and the Bata Museum also worked really hard to get the newest Yeezys. 

We also added a few more videos throughout the exhibition, contextual videos. They came from a variety of places, depending on what point we were trying to make. There are two videos that were produced by Sneaker Freaker. One is a brief, talking-head interview with Paul Litchfield with Reebok talking about the 20th Anniversary of the Instapump. We have a section of the exhibition on innovation that talks about some of these technological advances in sneaker design, and the Instapump Fury is essential to that story. So, that’s a great pairing that expands on that.

We wanted to really boost the presence of sports and images that show sneakers in motion. Whether it’s the use of them in sports, which is kind of the original thing, then breaking out into dance, the hip-hop culture, and other kinds of culture. We have a great reel of Wimbledon footage that goes back to 1934, but also has two clips showing key Wimbledon victories. One of Stan Smith wearing his Stan Smiths, which I think is awesome. The other is Arthur Ashe when he beat Jimmy Connors in ’74 at Wimbledon, becoming the first African-American to win at Wimbledon, and the Coq Sportif sneakers that he was endorsing are right there next to that.

So, things like that that add texture to the exhibition. Little video moments that kind of expand upon things that are already happening in the exhibition. Of course, we have footage of Run-DMC singing “My Adidas.”


You mentioned a couple minutes ago that you thought this was a great opportunity to bring scholarship to pop culture. Why is that important to do?

I’m an art historian, so my initial drive is to always think about the histories of things, and ways of interpreting them. Here at the museum, our mission is to use art or object to make sense of the world or comment on the world. We have a super high percentage of visitors who are first-time museum visitors. We’re always looking for ways to connect with all of our audiences, for ways for them to feel like they have a way into the exhibition and topics at hand.

I personally think that so-called pop culture subjects are prime things to be investigated in museums because they naturally have unforced appeal for a wide variety of museum goers. The important thing is to, as much as you can, unpack those objects and expand on them, so that a visitor can come in and say, “Oh my God, I didn’t know that sneaker was an American slang term in the 19th century because of the rubber sole.” Or that it was the vulcanization of rubber that allowed for sneakers to become the kind of footwear that they were. Or that when they were first introduced sneakers were super expensive, they were a mark of status. Just the idea that you can take this thing that everyone has a pair of and bring some newer level or deeper level of understanding to it I think is a really great service.

I think in a museum like ours, which is global and encyclopedic, there’s room for all these kinds of investigations. Having an exhibition that explores the history of rise of sneaker culture doesn’t detract from exhibitions on another floor about Pre-Columbian art, or African art, or American art of the 19th Century, Hudson River School painting — take your pick. It all can be investigated and people can be enriched by that.


Would it be accurate to say that the general public is more interested in seeing fashion in a museum setting than ever before? The demand for the Alexander McQueen show, Savage Beauty, was crazy. 

I definitely think it’s accurate that more and more museums are doing more and more fashion exhibitions. I think that is probably because of the demonstrable success and popularity of some of the blockbuster exhibitions like the McQueen you pointed out, which is now going to become the archetypal example from now to eternity.

I also think that it has a lot to do with some of the reasons that I mentioned before, that everyone on some level can connect with the idea of fashion, even if they don’t call it that. If you wear clothes when you go out of the house, the choice of what you put on your body, and what your using to say about yourself, even if you think you’re outside of the fashion system, you’re still in the fashion system, no matter what you’re wearing. All of these signals about identity, about class, about whatever, are telegraphed through your clothes, and I think that’s what makes fashion exhibitions when they’re done well so fascinating for people. And, of course, I’m not going to deny simply the glamour impact. The whole profile for fashion has risen dramatically in popular culture, let alone museums — fashion and fashion designers loom so large in everyday popular culture. I think that also boosts the exhibitions on those themes.


Your background is not specifically in fashion. Can you tell me a little bit your history as a curator?

My background as an art historian is mainly in 19th century European art. I worked for many years as a curator in a museum specializing in 19th century academic painting and sculpture, European academic painting. So, I come from a more traditional, I guess, background in terms of the objects that I studied and looked at.

But, I think that when you’re a curator, you can apply those skills to any topic that you’re called upon to tackle. In my case here, we mounted the Killer Heels show, which I curated. It’s just a question of doing a lot of research and learning on your own, and trying to bring your vision to it. It’s a great learning process. I have to say, I knew a little more about high heels going into that project than I did about sneakers going into this project. But that’s okay, because the show was organized by the Bata Shoe Museum, so I’m just shepherding it and overseeing it here.


Something interesting has happened to the word curator in popular culture over the past, I don’t know, 5 or 10 years. It’s a term that’s used a lot more frequently and a lot more generally than it has been in the past. Do you have any feelings one way or another about how the word is used these days?

I think that curating has become… like, four years ago everyone was an editor. Now, it’s curator. I curated my window sill, I curated my closet. It’s so interesting the way that these terms come to pass. I still have circumstances where, depending on what situation I am in, if somebody learns that I’m a curator, it’s like, “Ooh, that sounds cool. What does that mean? What do you do?” Then, at the same time, it’s become this really general term in popular culture. I think that it just speaks to the interest that people have in their own lives. You know, we’re also in this moment where it’s all about creating your own content. People curate their own identity and content on Instagram, on Facebook, or whatever. They are their own curators of their own museum of themselves, so, naturally, they’re using that term and thinking about the kinds clothes they wear, objects they surround themselves with, books they put on their bookshelf. That’s why “editing” and “curating” have been used in this way. It’s about making selections to tell a story. Using things to create a narrative. Telling a story through objects. And that’s what people are doing, around themselves.


Do you have any special sneaker memories of your own?

This is not a memory so much as a photograph that evokes something for me, because I don’t really have… I always had sneakers, but I was never, like, sneaker-obsessive. I have this photograph that I love of me when I was 4 or 5, and I’m standing with my mother, I’m in my tiny, 4 year-old-sized Keds. They’re red, the thin-soled Keds, the girly Keds. My mom is in her grown up version of her Keds, in a different color. We’re standing next to each other, and I think we also have matching sweaters. While I don’t remember the moment, when I see the photograph, what always strikes me is the universality, or intergenerationality of these simple shoes. Sneakers to me kind of mean comfort, and freedom, and youth. Being young.

Q&A by Adam Wray, Curator of FashionREDEF. You can follow Adam on REDEF and Twitter (@FashionREDEF, @terminal_avenue), or reach him at adam.wray@redefgroup.com