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“The automobile is the art”

A look at The Automobile Gallery’s past, future and focus on the community

By Rachel Sankey

The Automobile Gallery (TAG) opened in 2016 by the late founder William “Red” Lewis. The gallery holds about 100 cars at any given time. Rachel Sankey Photos

A 1966 Rootes Sunbeam Tiger, a 1937 Chrysler Airflow Eight and a 1917 Milburn all sit inside The Automobile Gallery (TAG), located at 400 S. Adams St., in pristine condition.

They are just three of the nearly 100 cars that shine under the stage lights inside the gallery, which opened in 2016, and stand as not only works of art, but storytellers.

It started with a dream

The view from The Automobile Gallery’s board room. Lehmann said past businesses who have held meetings in the gallery’s board room have said the view of the cars enhanced their meeting.

Though The Automobile Gallery didn’t open until 2016, the idea of it was a long time coming.

The gallery’s late founder, William Lewis, fondly remembered as Red, started working at a PDQ in the early 1970s.

Megan Lehmann, director of community relations at the gallery, said Red quickly moved into a manager position, and noticed the amount of receipts coming in for parts that would break when the employees would wash the cars.

It was then, Lehmann said, Red had the idea to create a touchless car wash.

After purchasing PDQ and meeting an engineer from New Zealand, Red released the first touchless car wash, which, as many are aware, exploded in popularity.

However, Lehmann said Red’s passion for cars reached far beyond PDQ.

Red began collecting cars and made many friends who were also car collectors.

“Eventually, they were like, ‘Well, what are we going to do with all these vehicles?’” Lehmann said. “Red was like, ‘Well, this is my dream. I want to open up a place where everyone can come and appreciate and enjoy (the cars).’”

At the time, The Automobile Gallery was known as the former Denil Cadillac dealership. Lehmann said Red and his friends began to formulate the dream vision of the gallery, and in 2016, the doors to the nonprofit gallery opened.

Today, TAG is even bigger – with an additional building out the back, and a revolving door of cars to keep the gallery fresh.

Keepin’ the gallery runnin’

The gallery has a variety of cars from all different decades. The large open windows and show lighting allow for a bright and comfortable place to showcase the cars for guests.

In addition to the board of directors and part-time and full-time staff, Lehmann said the team is made up of 50 active volunteers, with about 100 volunteers total.

Without their help, Lehmann said the gallery wouldn’t be what it is today.

“Their responsibilities that they take on are to protect the cars,” she said. “So if there’s an oil leak, they’re there to fix that. They’re here to protect the space.”

Lehmann said volunteers help educate visitors.

“(They) share short stories and talk to the people who are coming in for a tour,” she said. “They’re here to pull out information from them and say, ‘Why are you here? How did you find us? What do you like about this car? Did you know X, Y and Z?’ These people are just a wealth of knowledge. And they really carry this gallery. The volunteers keep it operational. It’s amazing.”

Educating the future

The Automobile Gallery (TAG) opened in 2016 by the late founder William “Red” Lewis. The gallery holds about 100 cars at any given time. Rachel Sankey Photos

While cars, both new and old, can come with some preconceived notions – such as what kind of person is into cars and what automobiles are made to do – Lehmann said The Automobile Gallery is for everyone, and is built up by a great community.

“There are people from all walks of life who have had cars here,” she said. “Truly, there’s something in here that can speak to anyone at any level. This is not just a private country club kind of organization. This is definitely for the community.”

A walk inside the gallery is more than checking out the shining vehicles; each car is accompanied by a plaque which tells the story of the car’s life and how it’s intertwined with the owner’s.

Since TAG is chock full of stories over the decades, Lehmann said it is important for the gallery to remain established, as it holds so much history.

“There isn’t anything like this in the area,” she said. “It is a place where people truly come to congregate and share personal stories. I don’t think downtown would be the same without a landing spot like this.”

To continue the gallery’s growth and provide for the community, TAG is in the process of creating an education center out of one of the gallery spaces.

The education center will include Z space technology, a virtual reality education platform, that will be for all education levels.

Lehmann said The Automobile Gallery also provides internships for those interested in the industry.

Continuing to keep the youth in mind, Lehmann said TAG has started an initiative called CARes for the Community.

CARes for the Community is run with the help of community leaders who want to help the youth in the Green Bay area. All funds go to youth services.

More than just a gallery

The gallery offers a space for a variety of events – from weddings to business events. There is a full kitchen in the back and a bar available.

While the gallery allows guests to walk through and view the cars and the stories behind them, Lehmann said it also provides a space for just about any event under the sun.

“We’re accepting almost anything (for events),” she said. “We will host weddings, we will host corporate businesses. It’s successful because it’s easy for customers to come here and say, ‘Okay, what do I need to bring?’ Nothing, just bring yourself and your people.”

The gallery provides the music, the linens and a list of preferred caterers and more, making it a hands-off, hopefully stress-free, event for the customer.

Cars & Guitars

An aerial view of the annual Cars & Guitars show. This year, there will be live music, food and, of course, lots of cars. Submitted Photo

TAG is gearing up for its fifth annual Cars & Guitars show, happening Saturday, June 18.

When the gallery first started brainstorming for the annual event, Lehmann said its launch became a no-brainer.

“We have this great location in the heart of downtown, which is newly revamped,” she said. “There are people who want to participate in a car show that the gallery is hosting. Washington Street is blocked off. We have live music this year by Big Mouth. Gallery admission rates drop 50%, so they’re $5. It’s family-friendly. There’s food here and a couple of guest vendors. It’s free to attend.”

When it comes to showing off cars for the show, Lehmann said the gallery takes a backseat and focuses on featuring the community’s cars.

Day-of car registration is $15.

Lehmann said they are planning for around 350-400 community members’ vehicles for the show, which will be lined up to perfection.

“We have such a great staff who have been doing this for so long that when parking the cars, they know Mustangs go here, they know the Corvettes go there and so on,” she said. “They set the show space so it makes sense for people who are coming to look at the vehicles who are like, ‘Oh, I’m really keyed up about Mustangs, so I’m going to go to the Mustang area.’”

On top of all the festivities, donations will be accepted throughout the show for Paul’s Pantry.

Lehmann said several sponsors were also a big help to make the event possible, such as Shoreline Credit Union, Festival Foods, who will be donating all the bottled water and donuts for car registrants, and American Foods Group donating some of the event’s meat.

Remembering Red

The late founder William “Red” Lewis. Lehmann said Red influenced many lives, both The Automobile Gallery team and community members. Press Times File Photo

When Red passed away, he donated all his cars to the gallery, but, Lehmann said, his legacy extends far beyond the material aspects of TAG.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to who met him has been profoundly influenced by him, even if it was just one conversation,” she said. “He was a very generous person. He’s very likable, very humble. He’s a common thread here. People will specifically come here because it was Red’s.”

As the gallery continues to carry on Red’s legacy, Lehmann said the phrase, “the automobile is the art,” runs at the heart of the gallery.

“The cars truthfully are the art, but the gallery is also the heart,” she said. “People come here to share stories about Red. They come here to share stories about this location before it was a gallery and they lived down the street. These cars bring people together.”
To find out more information about Cars & Guitars, as well as the gallery itself, head to theautomobilegallery.org.

Rachel Sankey is the associate editor of Green Bay City Pages. She can be reached via email at [email protected].

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