In Part 1 of our interview, exhibition curator Elizabeth Semmelhack and I discussed the ways in which she was able to tap into a large and active sneaker community that helped her to identify key sneakers to include, the most sought after of which were often rare, original sneakers.

We continue our conversation about the exhibition as an opportunity for the celebration of shared interests and the notion of “authenticity.”


Lindsey O’Connor: What are some of the unconventional ways you acquired sneakers for the collection and the exhibition?

Elizabeth Semmelhack: Well there was no robbery! I think in many ways this was the most ambitious exhibition I’ve done to date, simply because I didn’t have the artifacts in house to turn to. Prior to the sneaker exhibition, the most complicated exhibition that I had done was On a Pedestal: Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels, which required loans from 11 museums. The sneaker exhibition, however, required loans from 38 lenders. We worked with archives and museums, but also personal lenders. Unlike working with institutions, gathering loans from private lenders requires a lot of contact. When I first decided to do the exhibition, I just started calling people—a lot—I’m sure my numerous calls were probably aggravating to some of the potential lenders. In addition, it wasn’t just my efforts. The exhibition required a network of connections, and I have to say that I was always motivated to ask for the next artifact because the reaction that I got when I finally did connect with somebody was, “of course!” I felt like the majority of guys who lent to the exhibition were excited and more than happy to lend. We saw this again when it came time to arrange the traveling version of the exhibition.

LO: I agree! I feel like there was a spirit of camaraderie, of everyone coming together to celebrate a shared interest.

So how did you go about ensuring authenticity in the exhibition?

ES: If your question is related to the story I tell, I didn’t go into my sneaker research with any set answers to my questions. I definitely had a feeling that sneakers were more closely related to constructions of masculinity than they were to femininity, but I simply wanted to start at the beginning and say, “How was the sneaker invented? What was it in the 19th century that even made the sneaker of interest?” Then as I began to do research, I saw that some threads remain constant through the history of the sneaker, such as that sneakers tend to be at the cutting edge of technology. Some ideas that were a part of sneaker history when it emerged, such as sneakers’ connections to expressions of status, I saw reemerge later. I let my research take me along this road, and ultimately, as I suspected from the beginning, sneakers really do allow for a very fascinating entry point into some very large cultural issues.

If your question is in relation to the authenticity of the artifacts, I do think authenticity is connected to having the original. I think this is reflected in the debates within sneaker culture regarding retros versus OGs. For the exhibition, I felt it was important to get as many original sneakers as possible. I also sought out prototypes. In some instances I have retros, but the bulk of the exhibition is made up of originals.

Early on, when I was gathering sneakers for the exhibition, I saw a lot of Jeremy Scott sneakers. I definitely wanted to purchase a pair for the museum; I bought Totems but they ended up being a fake pair through a fake Adidas site. It was extremely instructive on multiple levels. I quickly purchased an authentic pair from Adidas and kept both in the collection because I think, not only is the issue of retro versus original a question or debate within sneaker culture, there is also the question of counterfeit versus real. And so it was very instructive to compare two shoes, side by side. I think, to many people, the subtlety of difference would be almost imperceptible. But when you look more closely, you see that the color combination is slightly different, stitching is slightly less precise. Ideas of intellectual property, ownership, authenticity, these are issues that have economic ramifications, but they also have collecting and cultural ramifications. I have kept both of those pairs in our collection because I think they reveal a host of questions that are actually very central to our society today. Especially since we are increasingly having most of what we wear designed in one place and manufactured in a completely other, often with a very different set of rules in regard to ideas of intellectual property, trademark, etc.

LO: It’s such an appropriate example, the Jeremy Scott Totem, to have this storyline play out with, because the shoes notoriously appropriate the visual language of West Coast Native American cultures.

ES: Yes, it was interesting that it was the Totem! I’m hoping in 100 years these two artifacts will help to reveal information about this really interesting moment that we’re living through, including the issues of cultural complexity in an increasingly globalized world. What is the ownership of ideas? How do you control the ownership of ideas? Can you, should you? All of these things are actually wrought in the literal fabric of these sneakers.

Lindsey O'Connor

Lindsey O’Connor was a Curatorial Associate at the American Federation of Arts who worked on the traveling exhibition Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture.

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