Why the Art-o-mat Vending Machine Is My Kind of Art Gallery

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It’s always fun to find an Art-o-mat machine. Image: Rick Tate.

I am about to make a claim I am pretty sure I share with a significant amount of folks worldwide:

“I am not the world’s greatest artist.”

Yes, I know everyone can be an artist at some level, and creativity is everywhere. I also know, however, not everyone can make a solid living as an artist, regardless of talent. When I study the various biographies of artists through the ages, I am reminded even some of the most recognizable and continuously influential artists of all time made little or no money off their work during their own lifetimes.

Vincent Van Gogh, for example, according to many histories, only sold one painting in his lifetime, and Frida Kahlo’s highest transaction on a painting was the about the equivalent of $1,000 today.

Just try being able to afford an original painting by either of these two artists now.

Today’s world is a little different, and a lot friendlier for artists wanting to make a little money off their work. There are, of course, artisan markets, community galleries, and art spaces out there, as well as online resources like DeviantArt, Society6, and Esty, the latter of which is practically an Amazon.com for creative types.

Not everyone can make a living off these means, and artists shouldn’t hold back their desire to create just because there’s “no money in it.” However, something just feels good about knowing someone out there likes your work enough to either want to spend their own money on it or at least want to take it home.

The first time I sold a small sculpture, a little winged creature inspired by the look of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, it gave me enough warm fuzzies to keep my spirits high through several weeks of “real world” deadlines and responsibilities.

I made $50 off the venture, and I felt a little guilty about it until the gallery owner told me my time is part of the cost of the product. That is, she said, unless I’m just doing it for exclusively therapeutic reasons. Yes, I created a little product someone wanted to purchase, but there was part of me that wished there was a way to create little original pieces of work that more people with less disposable income could enjoy as well.

This is why I love the Art-o-mat machine.

The idea of Art-o-mat is a simple one. Grab up as many old, mid-century or later cigarette machines as you can, and turn them into one-of-a-kind art galleries where artists from all over can sell their creations, and art lovers can purchase them from the machine for five bucks a pop.

It takes a neat old vending machine, once used for distributing little packs of cancer sticks, and turns it into a nifty way to purchase hand-made creations.

The first Art-o-mat was created in 1997 by an artist named Clark Whittington. According to the Art-o-mat history, he “had a Pavlovian reaction to the crinkle of cellophane.” When he heard someone opening a snack, he had the uncontrollable urge to have one too. This could work with art, and he tried this concept selling some cellophane wrapped photos mounted on wooden blocks in a repurposed cigarette machine at a local café in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was so successful, the café owner introduced him to other artists, and they soon formed the group called “Artists in Cellophane (AIC).”

Today, there are more than 100 Art-o-mat machines across the United States (as well as a couple in Austria and in Australia), showing off the work of more than 400 artists from 10 countries. How cool is that?

We first ran across one of these little retro galleries at one of those swanky malls on the Las Vegas strip. We inserted a five dollar bill, pulled a lever, and got a little cigarette pack-sized box containing a mini canvas watercolor of a dragonfly. Not a major purchase, but a great little souvenir.

Since then we’ve run across them in other cities, and have acquired a really unique collection of little art pieces and items including “linotype” prints, original acrylic paintings, jewelry made from beads, bottle caps, computer chips, coins, and other found items, photography, a mini-notepad made with repurposed paper and books, and even a bag of organic catnip that had our cat rolling on his back and biting his feet for an entire afternoon. (He needs it for medicinal purposes, I swear).

It wasn’t until one found its way to a new Whole Foods market in my city that I thought, “I gotta be a part of this!” Much of the art featured was simple in design, but all of it was clever and fun. There was even some exceptionally good work by industrious “kid” artists. This was my kind of art gallery: eclectic, geeky, fun, retro, and, most importantly, inexpensive and accessible for the general public. Just the novelty alone of getting art from a vending machine was a selling point for me.

I looked up their artists’ guidelines and there were plenty of rules. All artwork had to either fit in a certain sized box or be created on the same sizes wood blocks, exactly 2 1/8″ x 3 1/4″ x 7/8″. No glitter, balloons, magnets, etc. There are rules for how to pack it and what to use, making sure to label and “small parts” or “R-rated” images accordingly, and many other guidelines for creating suitable items that would be shipped across the country and hurled out of a machine.

At first, I tried a little plastic bottle barrette item and sent in my prototype. The response was super polite, but pretty much a “no go” unless I could come up with a better way than the bulky glue I was using to adhere it. They offered very good tips on how to improve it, but instead I ditched the idea in went with something simpler: mini nose art.

I’m a sucker for Kustom Kulture, old cars, and planes, so I took a nose cone craft I did for the DriveTribes site, shrunk it down, dubbed it “Scrap-nal,” and sent it off to Art-o-mat, fingers crossed.

I got another reply saying they loved the idea, but were worried it would be smashed in the boxes. Could I try it on the woodblocks? This time, I followed their advice exactly, sent in a wood block version, and they gave me the thumbs up!

“Woo-Hoo! I’m an AIC.'”

Once the completed art was sent to them (I needed to make at least 50), they would divvy it up in groups of ten and send it to different Art-o-mats around the country as needed.

I would receive $2.50 for each $5 item sold in quarterly payments. It would be up to me to make sure I keep sending my art. Fair enough.

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After reworking and re-packaging, my little creations are ready to join the other Artists in Cellophane goodies. Image: Lisa Tate

Now, there is a downside to this. You likely aren’t going to get rich selling your art via Art-o-mat. It’s more of a creative outlet than anything.

First, the simplest way to adhere to the required art sizes is to purchase their boxes or pre-cut wood blocks at $29 for 50 boxes. This comes with the cut cellophane needed to wrap them.

Once you get your art on the blocks and securely wrapped (something that I spent quite of bit of time stressing over), it’s up to the artist to send the art back to them properly.

It wasn’t cheap to send a heavy package of wood blocks, but since I committed myself to do this, I did.

And I waited.

Did I jump through the proper hoops? Who will get my art? Will anyone buy this, or will it sit in the machine while all the other cooler artwork gets to go home with people?

After a few weeks, my husband asked me if they received and accepted my shipment, but I hadn’t heard anything. I waited for that inevitable “wrong packaging” or “we just can’t sell these things” email.

Then, one month ago, I got a little envelope with a check and a list of the venues that carried my work. I had sold out at the machine Santa Fe’s incredible Meow Wolf! We had just visited there this summer, and I loved their machine. Another place my art went was a cool coffee shop in Winston-Salem, the city where Art-o-mat began.

No, I didn’t get a huge amount of money, but it felt really neat knowing my little pieces of retro art had found homes in different cities. They might end up on bookshelves, in home offices, garages, or cubicles. No matter. They are out making someone’s life a bit more colorful.

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Some of the little original pieces we’ve gotten from the Art-o-mat machines. Image: Lisa Tate

Next time you’re visiting an art space, café, bar, or museum, or wandering a mall or shopping center, look for an old cigarette machine. It might not be what it seems. You might find art from artists of all ages, backgrounds, and styles. You might even find my silly little nose art.

If not, sit tight. I’ve just ordered a new batch of blocks.

Visit Art-o-mat.org to find a machine nearest your community.

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