$5 art from vending machines

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

In the age of public smoking bans, the humble cigarette vending machine seems to have all but outlived its usefulness.

Pity not. Under an organization called Art-o-Mat (www.artomat.org), neglected machines are rescued -- and fixes to dispense contemporary art. Works are original and come in packages roughly the size of a cigarette box -- perhaps a pair of earrings, neatly boxed, or a glass ornament, or a 2-by-3-inch watercolor. Artworks that are a breath of fresh air. (The surgeon general would be proud.)

Since Art-o-Mat began in 1997, 86 machines have been placed throughout the country, including one at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and at a Whole Foods grocery store in Washington.

The machine in Washington will be stocked with works by local Whole Foods employees, many of whom moonlight as artists. Pieces cost $5 each, a sum that is split among the artist, Art-o-Mat and Whole Foods, which donates its portion to a local nonprofit group.

"If you think of all the time I put into these blocks, the money is not worth it," says Emily Johnston, an employee at a Gaithersburg, Md., grocery, who is painting miniature still lifes of fruits and vegetables for the machine. "I'm doing it for advertising purposes -- I want people to see my work and be curious about it."'

For shoppers, it's also about the thrill of discovery: Placards describe the contents, but you can't be entirely certain what your artwork will look like until you pony up the cash. It's "a more cultured approach to a vending machine," says Matt Hand, an employee at the Washington store who is making woodblock prints to sell. "It's going to be fun." Which is to say, anything but a drag.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: