Vending machines dispense tiny art

Sunday, February 23, 2003

— Pull a knob on one of these vintage cigarette machine and you may pick up a new habit -- buying art.

The Art-o-Mat offers miniature paintings, sculpture and other tiny trinkets for not much more than a pack of Parliaments. The concept has hooked accidental art investors with refurbished vending machines in art galleries, coffee shops and grocery stores nationwide.

"We're wanting to reach quality investors who haven't taken art seriously before and to support artists trying to make a living," said founding artist Clark Whittington.

He sold his own artwork in the first Art-o-Mat in 1997 in a Winston-Salem, N.C., gallery. The project now includes more than 40 rehabilitated cigarette machines, including prime spots in the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. About 300 artists worldwide contribute to the project.

In a Philadelphia Whole Foods grocery store, an Art-o-Mat stands just inside the front door. Customers can select pocket-sized paintings, magnets, glassware, African bronze sculptures and something labeled "goat milk soap" created by 20 artists whose work is stocked in the machine.

Brett Mapp, the store's community liaison, said about $2,000 worth of art had been sold through the Art-o-Mat since its arrival in October. Buyers are diverse.

"They're very excited and they usually come back to show us what they got," Mapp said,

Each Art-o-Mat selection costs $5; half goes directly to the artist, $1.50 to the host and $1 to Whittington for machine maintenance.

Whittington, 36, said he hoped the machines inspired people to make the leap from Art-o-Mat's kitschy-cool to serious art collecting.

While some buyers have commissioned larger works from artists whose work they found through Art-o-Mat, the majority simply want more of the miniature pieces.