You know you’re dating yourself if you can remember the days when you could deposit a handful of change into a cigarette machine, pull the thick knob of your choice, reach your hand under the cold swinging door, and wait for the thunk of a tightly packed box of smokes. These machines were clunky, heavy on top with thin legs at the bottom, and usually positioned near the pay phone in the back corner of a bowling alley. As the years progressed and smoking lost its glamorous air, these machines slowly disappeared. They were no longer cool; they were relics from our country’s unhealthy past. Until Clark Whittington came along.
A dozen years ago in the heart of tobacco country, Winston-Salem artist Whittington was struck with inspiration and installed 12 of his black-and-white photographs into a retired cigarette vending machine. He priced them at $1 each and was sure it wouldn’t last a month. The idea caught on, and now there are more than 100 of these Art-O-Mat machines across the country, including one in the Smithsonian and another at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. In a variety of bright colors, from turquoise to orange to lime green, these mini galleries are individually designed by Whittington and the “host.”
The Art-O-Mat in the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem features a familiar face from the childhood game Operation. A monkey astronaut smiles at viewers from inside an Art-O-Mat in Portland, Maine. And the art that drops out, ranging from an abstract painting to a pinhole photograph to a fused glass bobby pin, is different every time.
On Wednesday, Whittington will educate Charlestonians on the life of the Art-O-Mat and will let local artists know how they can have their artwork featured in one of the machines around the country. Transforming relics of our unhealthy past into mini galleries of original art makes people happy, Whittington says. At five bucks a pop, anyone can become a patron.
Halsey Director Mark Sloan says the transaction is the art. “You have to get the Sacagawea gold dollars from the Halsey desk to put in the machine, and then it’s such a satisfactory feel to see your art drop down.” The Charleston Art-O-Mat has “vended” local artists in the past, including Redux founders Seth Curcio and Bob Snead among others, and Sloan says he hopes Whittington’s visit will spur the next generation of artists to get their work inside the machine.
Art-O-Mats are about making art accessible. There is a submission process for each contributing artist who, once accepted, commits to producing 50 works that will be sold in machines across the country. “Once an artist gets involved, things happen,” Whittington says. “It’s a sociological study of selling art in this country where people will pay $5 for a cup of coffee, but hesitate to pay the same for an original piece of art.”
The Halsey Institute has been hosting the only Art-O-Mat in South Carolina since 2000. Halsey Program Coordinator Rebecca Silberman says, “People get such a kick out of buying art out of an old cigarette machine. Everything about it seems so right, from the sparkling, vintage décor to the kerplunk of the freshly picked art.
“I especially love that everyone has a different experience with the Art-O-Mat,” she adds. “While some walk by every day without giving it a second thought, others drive miles out of their way to visit each machine. You really get so much more than just five bucks worth of art.”