National Gallery Sneaker Exhibition
Hi Roger, can you explain your role at the NGV? What exactly does a curator do?
Curators are the managers of a particular area of the National Gallery of Victoria’s permanent collection. My colleague Paola Di Trocchio and I work with International Fashion and Textiles which covers a period from the 7th century to the present. Just to give you an idea of the parameters of the collection; we have a group of Coptic textiles from 7th century Egypt, 16th and 17th century lace, a Renaissance tapestry, 18th century dress, a huge collection of 19th century women’s clothes, and a selection of 20th century high fashion by designers such as Chanel, Balenciaga and Westwood. We are the guardians of this collection and anything and everything to do with this collection involves our time, or at least, our consent. Museums rely on extensive documentation these days. The collection we work with comprises over 5000 works so, for starters, there are several lifetimes of research and cataloguing to do.
We spend a bit of time researching new acquisitions whether purchases or gifts. This is one of the most satisfying parts of our job as we sometimes get to bid at auctions, usually in New York or London, for great works by important designers. Recent purchases include a classic 1950s New Look dress by Christian Dior, a 1970s tuxedo suit by Yves Saint Laurent, and a recent evening dress designed by John Galliano. Or someone could call us up and offer us an entire wardrobe of Japanese fashion or in one case a much loved dressing gown from Fortnum and Mason’s that, regrettably, we had to decline. But we have to be very selective and usually only choose a very few works that we feel best tell the story of fashionable dress or the art of textiles. The museum is also a repository of learning so we also provide a service for people to study works in our collection.
Probably the most visible thing that we do is conceive, plan and oversee exhibitions and write, publish and deliver talks on aspects of the collection. Exhibitions are essentially about telling a story with objects. Once we have chosen the works for the display, usually from our own collection as well as begging for loans out in the community, we embark on a collaboration with each and every of the many colleagues at the NGV to develop the conservation, documentation, design, educational and promotional requirements needed to get our story across.
And how did the gallery develop this idea of showcasing sneakers? Was it your idea?
Yes it was my idea but it was a simple goal of making our audience stop, look and think about sneakers as interesting and, sometimes, remarkable examples of design. That may sound perfectly obvious to the sneaker fraternity but it has been a bit of a revelation to many others especially those who associate sneakers with rubbery joggers and tennis shoes.
It was actually the collectors who were the main impetus for this exhibition. I had no idea of the depth of collecting in this country until just before Christmas 2005, when the journalist Rachel Wells did a story for The Age featuring key Melbourne sneaker aficionados such as yourself and Jazz Bonifacio.
The biggest challenge was finding the collectors who were willing to part with their treasures for such a long time (nearly twelve months). Fortunately Jazz, a sneaker designer at Globe and a pretty serious collector himself, jumped at the chance to be involved. Even your good self has helped us out with contacts and then with all the crazy media demands. So Jazz became our official sneaker advisor and he called on his contacts within the community as well as working the online forums while building up a profile of the strengths in various collections. I then contacted the potential lenders and gave them an outline of the parameters of the exhibition and its general themes such as classics, signature shoes, designer editions and independent brands, limited editions, collaborations and finally, customs.
It was then up to the collectors to send images and details from which Jazz and I made a final edit. We were initially flooded with offers of Nikes so we had number of serious gaps which we were eventually able to address through a couple of the collectors and then by getting in contact with a number of companies. The original plan was to display around one-hundred works but I very quickly learnt that this was not going to go down too well with the community and was, as you explained, kind of missing the point. So the number grew pretty rapidly till we ended up with 302 sneakers drawn from sixteen private collectors, seven companies and two retailers. As the project moved ahead, it became obvious that sneaker collecting and the collectors themselves were a major part of the story so I’m so glad we were able to include their comments on the website and the catalogue and involve them in public talks and the media.
I know the NGV has done exhibitions such as Tezuka and Bollywood recently, can you explain how shows with pop-culture themes like this fit into the NGV’s role as a serious ‘art’ gallery?
The challenge with exhibiting popular culture is that the objects are often quite ephemeral. Animators’ drawings can often be thrown out or simply not archived methodically enough. Posters are generally torn down, creased and faded. Sneakers are generally worn to death and therefore somewhat diminished in terms of their artistic integrity.
At the NGV, we collect and display works of art that derive from a broad spectrum of artistic practice, whether painting, sculpture, printmaking, craft, design or fashion. Naturally, we have tended towards the more lofty ends of this spectrum as in ‘serious’ art and so-called ‘high’ fashion but that’s not to say we cannot venture out towards more popular mediums such as sneakers. At the end of the day, there wasn’t that much of a leap from our collection of more recent fashion to this exhibition. And it effectively meant that we were touching on an aspect of the contemporary male wardrobe which is something we rarely ever get to do given the constraints of our collection which is dominated by women’s fashion.
On a practical level, learning about the collectors’ obsession with keeping their sneakers pristine perfectly met the needs of an art museum like the NGV. Our department doesn’t often get the chance to do something as topical as our collection is so historically-based. Knowing about these sizeable private collections out there in Melbourne suburbia (and some Sydney too) presented itself as an opportunity too good to miss and the timing just seemed right for bringing the story to a wider audience.
And what were your ideas about sneakers prior to establishing the show?
My own personal interest in sneakers was probably stuck somewhere round the mid-90s and that’s when brands such as Royal Elastics and Acupuncture were popular among the club and party scene and the Air Max 95 was causing flutters in my chest every time I saw someone wearing them. When I finally tried on a pair I felt like a complete dork. So I guess I’m talking about an aesthetic of 90s minimalism along with that naïve excitement of new technologies. Until this exhibition I hadn’t realized to what extent sneaker companies had grasped the fashion/ design/ street potential of sneakers especially in relation to the whole collaboration thing. That has been a real eye opener for me as well as the intricacies of customization.
Have you been surprised by the size and the passion of the sneaker scene in Melbourne?
Well I was certainly surprised after I bought my first copy of Sneaker Freaker and it was only then that I realized the extent of this global phenomenon known as sneaker culture. As Jazz points out the community here in Australia wouldn’t be where it’s at without the magazine, its online forum and all the launches, swap meets and exhibitions it has generated. As regards the passion, that has been an interesting thing to witness especially in terms of all the fun and affection coming through when dealing with collectors and their concerns and hopes for their beloved sneakers. What really surprised me was the extent of media interest in the scene.
What’s the weirdest thing you learned during the process?
Nothing weird so to speak although shrink-wrapping sneakers was a new one for me. Apparently the conservation fraternity is undecided on whether that is better or worse for the sneakers. The off-gassing from the rubber, composites and glues could actually create a toxic environment for the works but then of course oxygen could be just as bad. I think the way Nike have their production dates inside many of their shoes is really neat but certainly not weird.
Can you elaborate a little on the process that an organization such as yours has to go through to document all the sneakers?
Sorry but this is going to be very long-winded and boring but since you asked. First of all, Jazz and I requested a list with images from each of our lenders. That was a big ask but I gather most collectors quite enjoyed the process. After that the level of documentation just mushroomed. My colleague in the department Paola Di Trocchio and I with help from our volunteers Liam Revell, Jeanne Bardin, Amy Silver, Bethany Taylor, and Wendy Voon, spent weeks if not months checking up on the precise titles and release dates for each sneaker; a mammoth exercise in anal retention. At certain desperate moments, we would email Jazz Bonifacio and he would set us straight. The list was then passed on to Julie-Anne Carbon in our Registration department who transferred the list and the images to our collections database (Vernon) and produced the loan agreements that each lender was sent.
When the sneakers arrived, our two cataloguers Julietta Park and Trish Knight recorded three measurements for each pair as well as listing the generic materials used in each sneaker. Later on we asked the private collectors to send us comments about why they started collecting and a few lines about some of their favorites, which were then edited and loaded in. Julie-Anne’s meticulous manipulation of the database enabled our webmaster Jonathan Luker to upload the entire list on the Gallery’s website along with the images and collectors’ comments. The first time this institution has been able to list and illustrate each work in an exhibition on the webpage. Then we loaded it all back into Word for the exhibition catalogue and the back of the poster with the help of Judy Shelverton and Margaret Trudgeon, editor. I am sure any information analyst would be horrified at the amount of labor involved but we got there in the end.
The profile photographs you see on the poster and the web were all taken by Janelle Borig, loans conservator, who had to examine every single shoe – left and right of the pair – and photograph them a further nine times – to produce a five-page condition report on each work. This thorough documentation is required for all loans. The sneakers will then be re-examined by Janelle after the show closes and before they are returned. Our graphic designer Sam Shmith grabbed all these photos and created an awesome poster with an image of practically every shoe in the exhibition. The only reason why not all the works are printed on the poster is due to the late December-early January release dates of the new Air Force 1’s that are in the exhibition. More photographs of selected sneakers were taken for the exhibition catalogue and for publicity by our photographer Christian Markel. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, our copyrights officer Jennie Moloney was sending off details of the works to the various companies to ensure there weren’t any copyright restrictions. Then, our exhibition designer Daniel Jacobson and our exhibition graphics designer Julia Ozanjak produced the individual labels with their corresponding numbers for the display. So, yes the documentation was very detailed but no more or less than what we normally do.
Are you happy with the scope of the 300 shoes shown - do you feel it does justice to such a broad subject?
I think that our exhibition is a great introduction to the subject. People have walked out of there with a greater respect for the subject. I know it might not mean much to your average sneaker head but some of our gallery guides, who are very indicative of our usual gallery audience, have had a bit of a revelation about sneakers.
So, yes on that level, I am very pleased with the selection. But does it do justice to a subject of such phenomenal proportions? That’s a hard question to answer as it really depends on the individual visitor. I don’t imagine a die-hard collector of many years would see enough depth in our exhibition but then the general public and quite a few of the younger sneaker heads have really responded well to it; it’s just great to see them taking their time to look. Also I guess with any project like this you always think of the ones that got away. It would have been good to have more really ancient vintage pieces and a few more designer and ultra-limited editions but this is one of the great challenges to any museum exhibition in Australia, the scope is just more limited and we didn’t have the budget to source from overseas collections.
How has the reaction been? Has there been a spike in traffic to see this specific show?
Well, it has been the most popular exhibition that we have had in our relatively new dedicated gallery to date (known as the Myer International Fashion and Textiles Gallery). There have not actually been that many exhibitions of sneakers in public art museums. I know of only one other in San Francisco about ten years ago so yes, it’s quite a novelty and the public and the media have really responded very positively to it. The exhibition even received sponsorship from Dunlop which was a major bonus for us all.
There has been a visible increase in numbers of visitors to the exhibition space but as it is a free exhibition we could never provide accurate numbers. The sneaker heads certainly came in droves during the first few months and now, on weekends, it is still filled. Our Front of House staff was reporting a very different type of visitor coming in over the summer, many of them first time visitors, who were asking for directions to the exhibition. What's interesting, and this is just a day to day observation, is that we're noticing a lot of young men coming into the Gallery and from what we can tell a lot of them are ending up in the Sneakers exhibition space - and this is great because they are generally a hard group to get into a public art museum. I walk through the space each day and I see all sorts of people in there, from school kids, to our regular Gallery goers, to older members of the public and teenage girls. On top of that the exhibition catalogue, poster and a whole host of sneaker publications including Sneaker Freaker have been selling like hotcakes so that’s generally a sign of strong interest. I think we may even have managed to convert our quite traditionally-minded audience.
While there has been heaps of media coverage we have only had one review that I know of (The Age by Robert Nelson) although I am told an art journal is publishing their review soon. Nelson gave us quite a lengthy review which was quite flattering in itself but he slammed us for not using the exhibition to address a number of social and economic issues such as globalization and the decline of the footwear and clothing industries in this country. He was also very disappointed that we hadn’t shown more children’s sneakers.
I thought it was a ridiculous review. The guy is clearly an Air Max short in the top cupboard... Can I ask how the experience of joining the sneaker world affected you?
It has made me respect the world of street fashion and popular culture much more than ever before. And I am now totally seduced by the passion of sneaker companies, designers, collectors and retailers whereas before I think I must have been a little affected by all the negative vibes of the fair trade campaigns. I don’t know why but for a couple of years I was experiencing avoidance issues with wearing rubber soled shoes to work, so this project definitely helped me get over that problem.
Have you started buying more sneakers?
Yes but nothing compared to some. I am usually a decade or so behind everyone else so I now own a very daggy pair of Nike One stars and even a new pair of Volley Internationals which I recently took bushwalking. After reading about VISVIMS in Sneaker Freaker I was determined to find the flagship store in Tokyo and picked up a pair of deerskin mocs. I am in heaven every time I put them on although I beginning to wonder if that soft, baggy style makes me look a bit like a retiree?
Which sneaker has really caught your fancy?
There are really too many but I do have to say that I never thought a man’s shoe could look so pretty until I saw the 2005 Union collab edition of the Nike Air Force 180.