What started a decade ago as a simple idea for an arts organization in Winter Garden has grown into one of the most successful art galleries in Central Florida. The Winter Garden Art Association has reached artists of all ages through classes, workshops and exhibitions — and now it is making plans to expand.
“The success of the art association in Winter Garden has had an impact on thousands of artists’ lives,” said WGAA executive director Phil Self.
The SOBO Art Gallery — named so because it’s located on South Boyd Street — recently marked its 10-year anniversary and has announced a $5 million project that includes a second building of 5,500 square feet, additional gallery space and greater opportunities for even more local artists to be seen.
This project could be a boon to Central Florida artists, who have expressed to WGAA their disappointment that they typically don’t get any space in the exhibitions. SOBO’s last two exhibitions included 96 different artists, and only 11 made it into both shows.
Self said there are thousands of 2D and 3D artists creating sculptures, paintings and classic drawings — as opposed to performing artists on stage around Orlando — and they are all fighting for acceptance into a handful of art galleries in Central Florida that have open calls to artists.
SOBO features blind juried exhibitions, with an average of 300 submissions per exhibition.
“Unfortunately, we reject 70 to 80% of submissions because of limited display space,” he said. It’s like an underground reservoir or spring, he said, and leaders need to tap into this vibrant community of 2D and 3D artists.
The new building is expected to solve that problem.
Self’s idea is to bring together 2D and 3D artists and local musicians for a well-rounded exhibition. He said if artists were given a bigger stage for displaying their artwork, it could create an opportunity to combine the opening receptions with more local talented musicians.
“I think we could do something unique,” he said. “It would be a mecca and a catalyst for showcasing our incredible community of artists in Winter Garden.”
WGAA’s success can be traced back to the city officials who gave their initial support to the arts project more than a decade ago and continue the partnership today. Self is grateful for the city’s support — especially when he sees many private galleries closing in the Orlando area.
“It’s only because of the city that we are here,” Self said.
The West Orange Healthcare District had pledged $1.25 million, to be managed by Healthy West Orange.
The grant agreement between the West Orange Healthcare District and the Winter Garden Art Association Inc. states the district is awarding funding in the amount of $1.25 million to pay for a portion of the new building, “which will provide additional gallery space for expanding creative programming for healthy growth and vitality for residents of West Orange County.”
The agreement continued: “The health benefits of exposure to the arts (includes) the reduction of stress and anxiety, increase in positive emotions, decreased focus on pain and enhancement of social bonding. Findings also confirm that exposure to the arts enhances coping skills, thereby reducing needs for hospital care, pain medication and medical costs.”
The WGAA’s request focuses on the development of an arts complex designed to include both museum and gallery space, community art galleries, and a dedicated creative arts and wellness center for lifelong learning. New construction adjacent to the existing SOBO Gallery would be initiated late 2023 or early 2024, with final construction in 2025. The two buildings and outdoor areas will provide needed space for expanding creative programing for healthy growth and vitality for all ages including seniors and children.
The WGAA submitted a request to Orange County’s Tourist Development Tax Citizen Advisory Task Force last year and will present the full application in March and make a presentation for approval before the Orange County Board of County Commissioners in Apriil or May. The WGAA will find out soon after if the request was granted.
In the proposal for TDT funds, Self advised the organization of WGAA’s committed grant of $1.25 million from HWO, its plans to request of the city of Winter Garden a matching grant of $1.25 million and its plan to raise additional funds toward an overall project budget of $5 million.
WGAA is asking for TDT funding of $2.5 million.
“The creation of a dedicated learning center will provide potential for expanded programming focused on arts and wellness, arts and aging, arts and healing, and special needs communities, as well as provide space for art-related skill development and personal expression for all ages,” the request stated. “Additional gallery space will allow inclusion of more local artists to share their work, a permanent collection of art and enable the community to enjoy museum quality experiences in a larger capacity than is now available … in West Orange County.”
The TDT request continued: “About 20% of people visiting Winter Garden are tourists. Our city has become a hot spot destination, and our gallery is helping brand the city as an arts town. We need your help. Our SOBO Art Gallery in Winter Garden has become a hot topic place on the arts scene in Central Florida, and many artists say we are the best in Central Florida in terms of the range and quality of art — even in our small gallery space compared to many museums etc. in Orlando and Central Florida in general. This grant would allow for great expansion of the presence of art in West Orange County, and we believe that Winter Garden is worthy of a large and substantial grant to help with tourism in our area. In West Orange, the Winter Garden Art Association is an ideal partner.”
Self said the WGAA is in the process of taking the steps toward requesting funds from the city of Winter Garden.
If the entire $5 million falls into place, the building will have multiple stories, with the top floor being a combination of indoor and outdoor deck space. Self envisions the entire space being a piece of art — a railroad-era, steel-based structure that incorporates wood and stone, lights on the trees and a water feature that cascades down the side of the building and around the front. An awning would connect the two buildings.
Self has plenty of ideas for the gallery space, including a high school arts league that would give talented teen artists a place for exposure.
Overall, he said, with the expanded gallery space, West Orange County artists would have a higher chance of being accepted into juried exhibitions.
“We have over 1,100 artists who have actively submitted to an average of three exhibitions at SOBO in the last four years,” he said.
Self is on a quest to put the arts on the map the way eating right and exercise have done through the West Orange Trail and the HWO initiative.
“Eating right and exercise is right there, but I think if you had a vibrant arts community, it would make Winter Garden that much more interesting,” Self said. “Even with this limited size here we’ve already expanded, and I can just imagine once we have the new building.”
SOBO hosts eight big exhibitions each year and curates many pieces as well. As well, about a dozen businesses display WGAA artwork on their walls.
Self said art is one of the last bridges between social, religious and racial differences.
“When two people are celebrating creativity together, none of that matters,” he said.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.