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'Walk This Way' at the MFA
Wooden sabot from France (1834) look like the shoes in the French painting "Young Shepherdess" (about 1870). (Museum of Fine Arts)

Arts & soles

MFA hopes eclectic shoes, paired with some classic works, bring more foot traffic

When art enthusiasts visit the Museum of Fine Arts, they often make a beeline for the Egyptian mummies or the Monet paintings. Ceramic pots from the late 6th century B.C. are easy to skip. But maybe mixing a little pop culture with history will make a difference.

As part of the museum's ongoing effort to drive more visitors through all of its collections, the museum today is launching "Walk This Way," an exhibit styled like a treasure hunt that pairs eclectic shoes - from Red Sox Nike cleats to sandals worn by Marilyn Monroe - with art work in the building.

The Monroe sandals are encased next to an Andy Warhol screen print of the actress. Jeweled sandals by Bernardo from the 1960s stand next to a second-century stone statue of an Indian bodhisattva, a religious figure whose braided thong sandals look familiar.

Whether shoes are technically art, of course, is a subject of debate. "It sounds like art appreciation lite," said Patricia Hills, a Boston University professor of art history. "Sure, shoes can be fun. But I don't think people will go to the MFA just to see that show."

Controversy over exhibits is nothing new for the MFA. Ever since Malcolm Rogers was hired as its director in 1994 to revitalize the institution, debate has swirled about the definition of art. Under his tenure, Rogers has propped racing yachts owned by billionaire William Koch on the museum's front lawn for an exhibit called "Things I Love." In recent years, it also displayed Ralph Lauren's cars and Herb Ritts photos.

Pamela Parmal, co-curator, argues that design - not just fine art - has always been a part of the museum's history. "The museum collected textiles from the very beginning because New England was an important textile center in the 19th century," she said. Costumes and accessories came into the collection during World War II when the American apparel industry was starting up. "Believe it or not, there is an intellectual component" to this exhibit, she said. "Clothing says a lot about the people who wear it."

Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka's chunky cleats, for example, are on display alongside a Greek pot from 530 to 520 B.C. In stark contrast to the heavily padded Nike cleat, the vase depicts athletes from the era competing barefoot. Chopines, or high-heeled platform shoes, on display were invented in Venice in the early 16th century to help women's feet and clothing stay dry from the wet streets. The heels, in some cases, were more than 11 inches tall.

Parmal said the exhibit was driven by marketing and opportunity. The museum has about 400 pairs of shoes in storage, many of which haven't been displayed since 1978's "Stepping Out" exhibit. "We wanted to get more people into our permanent collections," she said. Visitors will be handed a seek-and-find map in an attempt to steer them throughout the building.

Tyler Green, an art critic and blogger for modernartnotes.com, has no problem with museums displaying fashion. "It's OK for curators at old hallowed institutions to take chances," he said. The key to pulling it off, he added, is that the show must remain respectful of the original art, not present it as old relics.

The exhibit, which runs until March 23, includes 30 pairings of shoes and artwork. Most of the shoes were in storage at the museum but a few were borrowed from or donated by collectors and designers.

Parmal approached Marc Jacobs after seeing one of his 2006 suede pumps in a magazine. She paired it with a leather and silk pump from the 1660s. Both shoes sport an identical triangular-shaped heel, called a slap sole. Adidas contributed a pair of Run DMC shell-toe Superstar Sneakers from the 1980s after the museum staff learned of their cultural impact on hip-hop. Run DMC even recorded a song called "My Adidas."

A pair of black patent leather Mary-Jane style Manolo Blahniks were selected, Parmal said, because they illustrate how shoes have been objects of obsession throughout history. "Our department assistant brought in the 'Sex and the City' episode where Carrie Bradshaw goes to the famous Vogue closet and finds the patent leather Manolos which she thought were an urban shoe myth."

Parmal, who describes her flashiest shoe as a Burberry patent leather flat, said she often wonders: Why are people so obsessed with shoes? "I've concluded that it's because it's an object you can hold. I like flats. But I'll admit I've been tempted by some Manolo Blahniks."

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com

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