Atlanta Life and Culture

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Sneakers displayed as art in High Museum exhibit opening next summer

The High Museum of Art will be getting some kicks next summer with an unexpected exhibition subject.

“Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” a touring show that will open at the Midtown museum in June 2016, will examine the social history of tennis shoes, from their 19th-century roots to their role as a status symbol of contemporary urban culture.

It may sound like an outside-the-box idea for an exhibit at a general-interest art museum such as the High, but to decorative arts and design curator Sarah Schleuning, it laces nicely with the institution’s mission.

“We want to broaden our audience and (present) different forms of art and really get people to come to the museum who may not think of this as a place that’s interested in the things they’re interested in,” Schleuning said. “But we also want to get people to ask themselves better questions about the value of the things we consume, whether it’s the technology or the aesthetics or the economics. There are all kinds of interesting ways to think of the things that are all around us.”

The High’s decorative arts and design department has been helping lead that broadening charge in recent years, having mounted two exhibits on automobile design. The museum’s first fashion-related show, on the cutting-edge womenswear of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, is to open Nov. 7.

“Out of the Box” drew major interest when it debuted at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum in 2013, and, with the involvement of tour co-organizer American Federation of Arts, it is being expanded. The four-stop U.S. tour visits the High from June 12 through Aug. 14, 2016. (It also will be hosted by the Brooklyn Museum, Ohio’s Toledo Museum of Art and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky.)

The show is built around some 140 pairs of sneakers from the 1830s onward, from lenders including Adidas Group, Converse Archives, Kosow Sneaker Museum in Boston, Nike Archives, Northampton Museums and Art Gallery and Reebok Archives.

Among the rarest are an 1860s spiked running shoe, an original 1917 Converse All Star/Non Skid, a pair of 1936 track shoes, the original Air Force 1 and early Adidas Superstars. The show includes contemporary sneaker company collaborations with luminaries such as Kanye West and British artist Damien Hirst.

“Out of the Box” also features sneakers and related prototype drawings from the archives of Nike, which span the career of celebrated sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield, as well as a complete presentation of Air Jordans I-XX3.

“I was very impressed when I saw the show that it wasn’t just a bunch of amazing sneakers,” Schleuning said. “It was about the ideas behind them and what their role was historically, too.”

The curator noted that the show should have a built-in audience in Atlanta, rated the seventh most underrated sneaker city in the world a couple of years ago by “sneakerhead” website

“There are huge sneaker swap meets and a lot of launches that happen here,” she said. “It’s a real subculture.”

One that is clearly about to slide center stage.

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The AJC Features Team spotlights arts previews, reviews, profiles, news features and breaking news on Atlanta's cultural and life scene.