Rumor has it that Henry Ford himself thought about opening a major plant right here in Toledo; and while that plant ended up just short of an hour north in Motown (along with the economic boost that came with it), Toledo’s automobile history and culture is surely not second-rate. It’s only fitting that the ambitious (both in size and topic) exhibit, “Life is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture,” is displayed at the local but world-renowned Toledo Museum of Art (TMA). The hope that comes along with an exhibit like this is that Toledo has an undeniable role in its narrative—for once, Toledo won’t be a second choice or be left in the dust.
From a wall focused on highway iconography to a corner dedicated entirely to works inspired by car crashes, “Life is a Highway” is certainly not lacking in size or scope. Within this grand and nostalgic narrative, the inclusion of Toledo is important not just because of the TMA’s connection to the area, but also due to the central place of the automotive industry in the city. Any exhibit about American car culture without Toledo may be missing the point.
“A significant part of Toledo’s economy has been related to the automotive industry since the beginning of the 20th century, but the city is also known for its thriving art community,” the exhibit itself tells us on a sign near the exit.
And the world-class exhibit itself does remind us every now and then that we are in what others may call “middle-of-nowhere Ohio.” It displays photography from nearby locales and events related to the automotive industry, like Lynn Whitney’s photographs of the Veteran’s Glass City Skyway Bridge, alongside its cross-country offerings.
Continue meandering through the exhibit’s winding roads, however, and the connections to Toledo are a little more subtle than one might initially expect. Curator Robin Reisenfeld’s focus lies more on the national (and universal) perspectives on topics such as the Great American Roadtrip and the phenomenon of “highway hypnosis,” evoked by long, empty stretches of road.
The exhibit includes brief instances of Toledo’s role in the national transformations of car culture; Toledo-oriented works and areas are positioned to address Toledo’s place within car culture, while also keeping the focus on a national lens. Lynn Whitney’s small-scale photography appears in a low-traffic area just off the main path through the exhibit. Another piece of local representation comes in local car dealer Steve Taylor’s collection of McClelland Barclay paintings on display in the exhibit’s final room.
The final room also features an appearance of the famous 1913 “You Will Do Better in Toledo” sign. It welcomes museumgoers back to Toledo from the Great American Road Trip through car culture, but its placement runs the risk of marginalizing the city as a literal footnote for the exhibit.
More information on car culture in Toledo can be found in the adjacent children’s interactive area, separate from the main exhibit but free to the public. Here, the future of Toledo’s car industry is placed into the hands of younger generations, as activities ask them to design what cars might look like for the next generation. The interactive area exists separately from the exhibit, combining children’s play and Toledo car culture in a way that is both optimistic and potentially confusing in its placement away from the main exhibit.
Toledo, however, has been an epicenter of progress and discussion surrounding the auto industry, as evidenced by Jeep’s presence in the area.
“[Toledo]’s always been a glass and automotive city,” Museum Director Brian Kennedy observed, referring to Toledo’s dominance in the national automotive industry, as well as Libbey Glass’ corporate relationship with Jeep— both companies with local roots and national reaches.
Jeep’s Toledo Assembly Complex was built in 1942 as the Stickney Plant and has been used as a vehicle production plant since 1981 (before that it was an engine plant). The plant also earned a silver designation in World Class Manufacturing (WCM) in 2016, becoming the first in the U.S. to do so. The Glass City’s most famous industry is also integral to the automobile, as much of the flat glass developed in Toledo is produced for the automotive industry by companies like Pilkington North America, a constituent of the NSG Group (one of the largest glass makers in the world).
There’s also a much deeper history of Toledo’s reflection on car culture, whether it’s the role Jeep played in Toledo’s resurgence in the post-war era or visionaries who used transportation as the main means to the future. For example, the 1945 exhibit, Toledo Tomorrow, showed the future of post-WWII Toledo with a focus on transportation advances. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes, the exhibit looked into the future of Toledo transit. In comparison to “Life is a Highway,” Geddes’ focus is less artistic and more practical, less national and more local. It featured the exciting technologies of the time, showing a path to the future, while “Life is a Highway” takes viewers on a path through the past.
Toledo’s automotive industry has a history that, in some ways, reflects its present. Automotive production in Toledo dates back to 1900, when the American Bicycle Company manufactured the first automobile in the area—a steam truck. Images of this truck or other early Toledo vehicles do not exist in the exhibit, but other images from the time are on display. These works show the daunting, yet exciting industry of automobile manufacturing, as well as the uncertain nature of ever-changing technology. Today’s talk of cars is no less divided, as Martin Lewis’ print “Which Way?” (1932) demonstrates, showing early in the exhibition the timeless anxieties about changing industry and technology.
And these anxieties continue today. While the automotive industry is still growing in the Toledo area, creating 4,029 new jobs in the last three years, trends in the auto industry and in the area suggest that car culture in Toledo may be in a precarious place. According to Toledo.com, “Toledo’s economy is expanding from automotive products to high tech solutions focusing on glass, solar energy and the service sector.” So, as times change, the city is evolving beyond and maybe even out of its past. The automotive industry as a whole is evolving, too; Forbes identified recent automotive trends including the rise of ride sharing, multimodal transportation and vehicle subscription services, all of which suggest a fall in demand for cars. The industry is not experiencing a complete downturn, though.
A Toledo Blade article on the local automotive industry in Toledo quotes Karl Brauer as saying: “…the real story in 2017 was the near wholesale death of the car . . . The good news is truck and SUVs sales pretty much counterbalanced the drop in cars, and those models are almost always more profitable for automakers.”
Discussion of car culture cannot be separated from these shifting statistics, positioning the car as a dying product. The success of trucks and SUVs has the potential to transform the industrial, consumer and cultural environments of the Toledo area. As the Blade notes, the automotive industry is, “one of the most critical parts of the region’s economy,” placing it in a position to have a great effect on the area. Toledo is returning to its roots in the truck, it seems.
“I think now is a great time for the exhibition because we’re at the development of the automobile at such a pivotal point,” Reisenfeld noted. “It’s a good time to reflect on how the automobile has shaped us in the past to determine how we want to move forward in the future.”
While the exhibit does not offer any specific ideas itself for what the future of automobiles looks like, some of the trends it displays offer potential futures for automotive industry and car culture as it pertains to the Toledo area.
“The future is undetermined,” Reisenfeld said, citing the exhibit’s portrayal of the ever-evolving form of the automobile and culture surrounding its presence.
The future of the car industry in Toledo, however, will be transformed by aforementioned trends in industry and consumer culture that we can see now. So, while the future may be undetermined, there is plenty of room to speculate on how Toledo will face the imminent turning point brought about by these trends.
We cannot know exactly what Toledo’s car culture will look like, but we can look at the trends of the past and the present to find out that, like many post-industrial communities, Toledo may be shifting away from transportation industries like automotive production. Toledo’s car culture may even lose its industrial facet entirely, transforming local car culture into a reflection on history and an environment of importing, rather than a celebration of local industry and pride. “Life is a Highway” may not directly address the uncomfortable possibilities ahead for a Toledo on the precipice, but it gestures at the complexities. And that is a conversation that is at once local and national, with Toledo’s rich history ensuring that it is central to the discussion, not simply a footnote.