These days, it seems like you can find just about anything in a vending machine. Aside from the typical candy bars and packaged snacks, vending machines that dispense everything from cupcakes and electronics to comic books and baguettes can be found in several countries.
Art, however, is something you’d never find in a vending machine, right?
Wrong. Leave it to an artist to create a vending machine that sells nothing but art.
Since 1997, Art-o-mat has been changing the world of art distribution by refurbishing cigarette vending machines and using them to sell small, cigarette box-sized art pieces made by artists all over the world. Over 200 Art-o-mat machines exist today in breweries, schools, and museums worldwide—one artist’s brainchild put original art into the hands of the masses at affordable prices.
What Is Art-o-mat?
Art-o-mat machines are vending machines fashioned from retired cigarette machines that sell individual pieces of “vend art” from a selection of creators. The first Art-o-mat machine was created in June 1997 by artist Clark Whittington, according to Art-o-mat’s About section on their official website.
Whittington used a then-recently banned cigarette machine to sell his art at his solo show at a cafe in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He mounted his black and white photography onto wooden blocks that were the same size as a cigarette box. For $1 each, patrons could purchase a piece of Whittington’s art and take it home with them.
The machine was a huge hit. The owner of the venue where Whittington’s art show was hosted requested that the Art-o-mat machine become a permanent feature of the cafe. Whittington agreed, and the first-ever Art-o-mat remained there until 2010.
Today, the Art-o-mat project is sponsored by the group Artists in Cellophane (AIC), whose mission is to “encourage art consumption by combining the worlds of art and commerce in an innovative form.” And what better way to do that, the group jokes on Art-o-mat’s mission statement page, “than with a heavy cold steel machine?”
In actuality, AIC has ensured that every Art-o-mat machine is the complete opposite of cold and heavy—each of the 232 active Art-o-mat machines features a fully unique exterior, so no two Art-o-mat machines look the same. Photos of each Art-o-mat machine are available on the Art-o-mat website. Due to the variation in the types of cigarette vending machines used as the basis for Art-o-mat machines, product capacity varies by machine. Some machines house pieces from 10 artists while others feature the work of 22 artists. As Art-o-mat machines are refurbished cigarette machines, they function in a similar fashion. Payment is inserted into the machine, and the user pulls the knob corresponding to their art selection. This action adds a fun, interactive element to purchasing art, highlighting the simple joy and novelty of the concept.
Of the 232 currently active Art-o-mats, most are located in spaces fully accessible to the public, with only a handful belonging to private collections. Common locations for Art-o-mat machines include art schools, museums, breweries, restaurants, libraries, and cafes. These are “third places”—locations that aren’t someone’s home or workplace—that encourage conversation and community. Art-o-mat machines can be found in many U.S. states, including Alaska and Hawaii. Canada, Austria, and Australia also have one Art-o-mat each, boosting AIC’s international mission. Several notable Art-o-mat locations include the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the six machines found at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, Nevada.
How Does It Work?
Art-o-mat and AIC have worked to make artist inclusion in Art-o-mat machines as accessible as possible—submissions to Art-o-mat are ongoing and new work is always welcomed from artists of all skill levels, based anywhere in the world. A 2021 article from Technique touts that over 400 artists from all over the globe participate in Art-o-mat.
The challenge for artists, however, comes in adhering to Art-o-mat’s specific size guidelines for inclusion in their machines. The art sold in Art-o-mat must be no larger than the dimensions of a cigarette pack (2 1/8″ x 3 1/4″ x 7/8″). Art-o-mat sells materials for packaging on its website to make the submission process more approachable to prospective artists. Selections for works to be included in Art-o-mat are made based on “effort, craftsmanship, and originality,” but most importantly, how the piece would feel in the hands of someone who has never purchased art before. If their art is chosen for inclusion in Art-o-mat, artists are encouraged to include contact info such as their website and social media pages for consumers to follow. This can create a bridge between the art and the artist—something that is difficult to cultivate in traditional art collecting spaces.
For consumers, Clark Whittington wants Art-o-mat to help people who are not typically exposed to art gain some familiarity with the subject. Notably, Art-o-mat manages to break down the standard barriers associated with art, like elitism and cost.
“So many people think they don’t like art,” Whittington stated in an August 2020 article from Carolina Country. “But at $5 each, it’s certainly worth a try, even if it’s just to live with a little bit of it.”
The novelty of the Art-o-mat machines and their high-traffic locations fosters a unique, memorable experience. The process of “finding” and journeying to an Art-o-mat machine can be an exciting escapade in itself. As Art-o-mats are located in shops, museums, or other places designed for sociability, consumers can converse about the art they’ve received from the Art-o-mat with other visitors. Visitors leave with a tangible piece of artwork that serves as a souvenir. The artwork can also be a conversation starter when it’s displayed in a visitor’s home. This word-of-mouth marketing that AIC attempts to facilitate makes Art-o-mat even more of a nostalgic endeavor. Bringing that comforting feeling to art and art collecting will expand the accessibility of art to the average person over time, fulfilling the long-term vision of AIC.
The Art-o-mat concept is a creative, novel juxtaposition of the old and the new, showcasing the effectiveness of upcycling. Born from one artist’s humble idea, it benefits both the artist and the consumer. Venturing to an Art-o-mat machine allows consumers to explore new places and collect art at an affordable price. Art-o-mat is a unique opportunity for artists to share their work with novel audiences in a tangible way. Who knew the simple sound of a “kerplunk” from a vending machine could accomplish all that?
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