I took Mom to see the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at New York City's stupendous Whitney Museum of American Art last weekend. Very impressive. But what really caught my eye was an unusual contraption on the bottom floor next to the book store called the "Art-O-Mat". At first glance it looks like a cigarette vending machine from the '60s. Wow, I thought, a cigarette machine. When was the last time you saw one of those? Upon closer inspection it turned out to be an ingenious device for vending original art in cigarette pack-sized boxes. You buy a token from the cashier at the book store for $6.98 plus tax. You then put it in the Art-O-Mat's coin slot and make a selection of the "brand" of art you want. Little descriptive labels occupy the spaces above the levers that used to say "Marlboro," "Newport" and "Chesterfield." There's a thrill to pulling that nob all the way out and having your purchase fall in the trough below. My choice was from an outfit called "Weener Ware". Inside my fancifully festooned box was a decorative pin made from a bottle cap with a picture of a dog in it. Cool! The Art-O-Mat at the Whitney is one of 82 retired cigarette vending machines that have been converted to vend art in various locations throughout the country and there are around 400 contributing artists from 10 different countries currently involved in the Art-O-Mat project. Here's what the Art-O-Mat website says about how it all began:
The year was 1997, the town was Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Artist Clark Whittington was set to have a solo art show at a local cafe, Penny Universitie (now Mary's Of Course Cafe). This is when Whittington used a recently-banned cigarette machine to create the first Art-O-Mat. In June 1997, it was installed, along with 12 of his paintings. The machine sold Whittington's black & white photographs for $1.00 each.
This art show was scheduled to be dismantled in July 1997. However, Cynthia Giles (owner of the Penny Universitie) loved the machine and asked that it stay permanently and machine remains unaltered in its original location to this day. At that point, it was clear that involvement of other artists was needed if the project was going to continue. Giles introduced Whittington to a handful of other local artists and Artists in Cellophane was formed.Personally, I thought the Art-O-Mat was really Kool. On a Lark, I'd walk a mile for one because you've got a lot to like and they've come a long way, baby. And I'd rather fight than switch.