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Carr Center highlights sneakers and the ‘sneakerheads’ who love them

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published March 13, 2020

 Carr Center gallerist Maya Tilghman shows off some of the sneakers featured at the gallery as part of its Grails sneaker exhibit. The pair she holds, called Golden Moments, was released in 2012 as a celebration of Michael Jordan’s legacy.

Carr Center gallerist Maya Tilghman shows off some of the sneakers featured at the gallery as part of its Grails sneaker exhibit. The pair she holds, called Golden Moments, was released in 2012 as a celebration of Michael Jordan’s legacy.

Photo by Deb Jacques

DETROIT — People collect stamps, baseball cards and even cars, but in recent years one of the most popular things to collect has been sneakers.

Sneaker collectors, known as “sneakerheads,” and their collections of shoes are being highlighted by the Carr Center in Detroit as part of the center’s new Grails exhibit.

“The idea came from Erin Falker Obichigha, who is the Carr Center curator and creative director. Her initial idea was asking why people were so passionate about it,” said Maya Tilghman, a gallerist at the Carr Center. “The community that has been built around sneakers are called ‘sneakerheads,’ and they will geek out about everything that has to do with these shoes: the release, the design, the politics around it, who owns it and so forth.”

The Carr Center describes itself as “a multidisciplinary arts organization that leverages the essence of the African American cultural experience to inspire, entertain, challenge and educate.”

The exhibit will run through April 9 at the Carr Center Gallery, located at 15 E. Kirby St. in Detroit. There is no cost to attend, but donations are welcome.

William Sexton, of Detroit, is among the collectors whose sneakers are featured at the exhibit. He said he has been interested in the world of sneaker collecting since he was a kid.

“For me, it started as a kid, because I was always into sports,” he explained. “I would watch my favorite athletes on TV, and you’d see what they had on the court or on the field. As a kid, you want to be like them, so that was how my appreciation for sneakers started. In high school, I got introduced to the collecting side of things and the stories behind them.”

Tilghman said sneakers come in a wide range of rarity and collectability. Those prized by collectors are those produced in small numbers and that either have a particular purpose or are made by a particular designer.

“What makes something a grail is the exclusiveness behind the release,” she said. “They are only released in small numbers. There was a shoe released in honor of Run DMC’s song ‘My Adidas.’ Some shoes have some personal aspect behind them, and some are particularly loved by collectors.”

“I think a lot of it comes down to exclusivity,” agreed Sexton. “A sneaker you would just buy at  Foot Locker or something is mass produced, but the ones that are more rare or only made in limited batches are more for collectors. Companies like Nike or Addidas would put a story behind the shoe.”

Sexton said he separates his collection by company, then by the particular shoe and then by color. He explained that what sets many of the most desired shoes apart is how they are given a story or released in connection to a particular athlete or event.

“The most popular kind of stories would be like Nike’s (Michael) Jordan line,” he said. “They follow his career where he would have worn the shoe in a big game or playoff series or it would be something he wore in an ad. They take those moments and design the shoe based on that.”

The Grails exhibit will show off a variety of sneakers from the last several decades and share why they are considered collectibles.

“The show is continuously changing,” said Tilghman. “We have a visual and history video about some particularly special sneakers. This covers things like the first pair of Nikes worn on TV, worn by Farrah Fawcett on ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ We have a display on Run DMC. We have some Reeboks made specially for the Detroit Red Wings.”

Sexton said that even if someone knows nothing about sneaker collecting, they should check out the exhibit because there’s so much to learn and the Carr Center does a good job explaining why the pastime has caught on so strongly.

“Even if someone is not super into the sneakers, they should come down and see what the hype is about,” he said. “I think there’s something that draws people in, and I think seeing them all organized and laid out in an exhibit like this can show people why we collect them.”

Sneaker collecting has taken particular root in the African American community, something Carr Center officials said was among the reasons they wanted to host the exhibit.

“We wanted to highlight the significance of sneakers and sneaker collecting, particularly among the black community,” said Tilghman. “We have six featured lenders who are collectors, and we display parts of their collections. We share personal stories and demonstrate why this is a hobby so many people get into, and why people collect them.”

Tilghman said she didn’t understand the appeal of collecting sneakers before, but after seeing the exhibit take shape and speaking with collectors such as Sexton, she has a far better appreciation for it.

“I was not a sneakerhead before the show,” she remarked. “I didn’t really get it, but I saw the story behind it and understood how they are collectibles, and I think it would be something anyone would find really interesting.”