SoBo Art Gallery Executive Director Phil Self has only been onboard for a little more than a year, but already, he has had his hand in many of the recent and planned improvements at the SoBo gallery.
The SoBo Art Gallery in Winter Garden has undergone many changes in 2019 to help further its mission of supporting local artists.
And there’s more to come.
The gallery space has come a long way from its origins as Winter Garden’s old fire station. The gallery took over the building in November 2013 and since then, has attracted artists both within and outside of the city and West Orange County. For each exhibition, the Winter Garden Art Association receives hundreds of submissions, but the gallery only has enough space to accommodate about 60 pieces of art — depending on the size of the piece.
“We recently redid the back room, which we call the studio space, but it’s pretty much a multipurpose room,” said Mary Keating, chairperson of the WGAA Board of Directors. “We elevated the ceiling — took down the dropped ceiling — and put in beautiful lighting, which opened up the room so much. … We also redid the floors and made it just really elegant.”
“We’ve just added on to the front area porch as part of the deal when we did the apartment complex next door,” Winter Garden City Manager Mike Bollhoefer said. “(The deal) was to do an expansion there (at the gallery), which gave them a lot more outdoor space.”
Changes were made to improve guests’ experiences and to further support the artists who consider the gallery a home for their work.
Additionally, the alleyway between the gallery and the Tremaine Boyd apartment building will act as a gathering space.
“We’re going to put outdoor furniture so that people can come visit and sit around and enjoy (the gallery),” Keating said. “We’re hoping that that will bring in some more (foot) traffic so people can see our beautiful art by all the local artists.”
The WGAA will be starting an outdoor murals program in the coming months, and it also has an outdoor sculpture exhibition program coming this year. The murals and sculptures will be on display on a rotating basis at different designated locations throughout Winter Garden.
The gallery will be displaying art at other sites in cooperation with organizations such as Orlando Health, AdventHealth, June Engineering and the upcoming packinghouse on Tildenville Road. The WGAA also will be working on fundraising toward a new gallery space to be constructed on the parking lot adjacent to the SoBo Art Gallery.
“SoBo is a great organization (with) lots of members,” Bollhoefer said. “They’ve done great things. If you ever go to their art exhibits, they’re packed. (What) we’re getting ready to start soon is to work with them to raise money in a project to build another building, (which will be) a gallery adjacent to them next door on the empty parking spot because they need a lot more space.”
Much of the recent and planned improvements at SoBo have been guided by and in support of three primary areas of mission and purpose: increase the display of art in the SoBo Art Gallery and throughout the West Orange area; support the community of local artists; and use art as a means of community outreach. Many of the changes started after the WGAA brought in Phil Self as the executive director of both the gallery and the association.
“We really are excited about having him be our leader,” Keating said. “There’s been a handful of us (who) spend a lot of time up there for six years to get it going, and we are very excited that he is taking on most of those responsibilities. Even though we still have a whole bunch of volunteers that make it work, he is taking the lead on directing where we’re going and being the liaison with the city and leading us in our exhibitions.”
Originally from Atlanta, Self moved to Winter Garden in 2008, but even prior to moving to the city, he was a frequent visitor. He used to attend his niece’s recitals at the Garden Theatre, as well as his nephew’s football games at the fields near Plant Street Market. He even has previous ties to the SoBo Art Gallery.
“My mother is an artist and has been here in this area for a long time,” Self said. “I’d actually come with her to a SoBo exhibition before when she’d shown some of her work here, so I’ve seen the place over the years. … It felt like a close connection even from the beginning.”
When the executive director job at SoBo and the WGAA opened up, Self’s mother encouraged him to apply. He waited a little while before applying, but he eventually threw his hat in the ring. He has been the executive director of SoBo and the WGAA for a little more than a year. One of his earliest accomplishments was coming up with the three primary areas of mission and purpose. He's also worked toward improving and streamlining much of the internal processes at the SoBo Art Gallery and the WGAA.
“All of it goes back to impacting those three key areas,” Self said. “They keep everybody on track. Focus is key at an organization, especially when it is run by a lot of volunteers. You’ve got a lot of different ideas involved and a lot of people involved and a lot of different ways of communicating involved.”
When Self moved to Winter Garden and got the job with SoBo and the WGAA, he came home — both professionally and personally.
Much of Self’s professional career has been in the creative industry. He is a former digital media publisher and leader at a publicly traded media company. He also has a background as a TV studio executive who produced seven top-rated, nationally broadcasted animated TV series.
“My job in particular was working with the networks,” Self said. “I got to pitch television show ideas to networks like … Viacom, Sony Pictures, Comedy Central, FOX, NBC, ABC, CBS, E Channel and FX.”
He worked among artists almost every day during his stint in the television industry. Many of those artists were the animators of the shows he was involved in.
“The thing about (working in television) that relates to what I do here at the gallery is, depending on when shows were in production, we had over 100 artists at different points,” Self said. “A lot of those artists — even though they were animating shows — were artists in their own right. They were doing exhibitions on the weekends — everything from fine art to sculptures and 3D art or street art. They were legitimate artists, so in a way, I didn’t realize how much I was already doing this kind of work.”
During his years working as a publisher, he worked with multiple different brands, magazines and websites, all of which involved some form of art.
“We had a lot of different brands,” Self said. “We were overseeing everything from magazines being printed — large, national magazines — to websites to concert series. And in all of those venues, you did different types of art. We had everything from photography, graphics (and) even to the background art at a concert or the design (of a magazine). … Your interdependence as creatives on those pieces teaches you this appreciation for all the different forms of art.”
The time he spent working with various artists through his television and publishing careers had inadvertently prepared him for his current role at SoBo and with the WGAA.
“It became more and more apparent the more that I learned about the role how much I’d been prepared in other ways,” Self said. “I realize my appreciation for the arts (and) my appreciation for working with so many artists on a professional level brings a distinct edge to the city and to the gallery because I really have a heart for … the arts.”
Although he’s held some high positions in his work in the television industry and in his career as a publisher, there were some key aspects that were missing from both jobs.
“Even though I had these high level jobs, they didn’t have the community (aspect) in it,” Self said. “It was missing what Winter Garden’s got in spades, which is that feeling of having a home. … My vision here is I want to be a part of this community for a very long time. I want this to be where I finish.””