A Smokin’ New Way to Buy Affordable Art: These Repurposed Cigarette Vending Machines
Art-o-mat, vintage cigarette machines repurposed to dispense miniature works of art, is a novel, affordable way to start a collection.
By Paula M. Bodah | Photography by Carl Schultz
“If you love handmade objects, you’re bound to find something you like.”
—Peter Bugg, visual arts coordinator for Chandler Center for the Arts
Remember cigarette machines? The soundtrack of the 20th century in bars and restaurants, bus stations and hotel lobbies included the ka-ching of coins dropping into a slot, the crank of a knob being pulled and the thwack of a falling pack of cigs.
Leave it to an artist to come up with a way to repurpose those iconic, colorful contraptions. In the late 1990s, North Carolina artist Clark Whittington incorporated a vintage cigarette machine in a show of his work at a Winston-Salem cafe. For $1, the original Art-o-mat dispensed one of Whittington’s black-and-white photos mounted on a wooden block the size of a pack of cigarettes.
The cafe owner so loved the idea, she wanted to keep the Art-o-mat after the show closed. Knowing he couldn’t keep the machine filled by himself, Whittington enlisted other local creatives and formed the nonprofit Artists in Cellophane (AIC). Nowadays, some 200 makers supply their work to vintage Art-o-mats all across the country, including six here in Arizona.
A mere $5 (cheaper than a pack of smokes) gets you an original piece of art. It might be a painting on wood or a 3-D piece—perhaps jewelry or a miniature piece of textile art—in a cardboard box. Like cigarettes, the block or box comes wrapped in cellophane. “We’re very liberal in what we accept as far as content,” Whittington says, “but we do have a process, like a gallery or museum does.”
Peter Bugg, visual arts coordinator at the Chandler Center for the Arts, keeps the city’s two machines supplied. “They’re quite popular,” he says. “They’re a great, affordable way for people to have something by a local artist.”
Among the half-dozen or so Arizona artists who participate is Vesna Taneva-Miller. “I saw the machine at the Chandler Art Center a few years ago,” she recalls. “There was an artist who had these collage chickens there and I thought they were so cute, I bought one, then decided I needed another one. I think I emptied her row. And I thought, ‘I want to do this.’”
Taneva-Miller periodically sits down and paints colorful, whimsical cacti on batches of 100 wooden blocks, then ships them off to AIC. From there, the pieces make their way to machines far and wide. “It’s fun. You wait a few months, and then you get a check in the mail,” she says. Along with her remuneration (artists get $2.50 per piece) she receives a list of where her pieces were sold. “One time, I found out I was in the machine at the Smithsonian,” she says with delight.
Art-o-mat isn’t a road to riches, Whittington admits. “It tends to attract a certain personality type,” he says. “It’s more about the concept and proliferation of art than about money or status.”
Bugg says Art-o-mat is also a vehicle for Arizona creators to get recognition elsewhere. “We want them to go in the machines in other states, to get the word out about Arizona artists.” As for himself, he says, “I’ve got one piece, and there are some that have caught my eye, but I want to leave them for the public. There’s so much variety. If you like handmade objects, you’re bound to find something you like.”
artomat.org, Clark Whittington, email@example.com.
Artist: Vesna Taneva-Miller, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find an Art-o-mat® machine in these locations:
The Vision Gallery, Chandler, visiongallery.org
Chandler Center for the Arts, Chandler, chandlercenter.org
FOUND:RE Phoenix Hotel, Phoenix, foundrehotels.com
Puscifer, Jerome, puscifer.com
Caduceus Cellars, Jerome, caduceus.org
K. Newby Gallery, Tubac, newbygallery.com