Vintage cigarette machines get new life dispensing art

Art-o-mat

Clark Whittington has two rules for choosing works of art he sells.

“It’s got to be worth five bucks, and it can’t get you arrested,” says Whittington, creator of the Art-o-mat vending machine that dispenses small works of art.

Converted cigarette vending machines renovated by Whittington, the Art-o-mats contain small paintings, prints, sculptures and engravings created by artists from multiple countries — and they’re just $5.

On Wednesday Whittington inspected the revamped machine — currently the only one in Louisiana — that stands against a wall in the Baton Rouge Gallery.

More than 100 of the machines have been placed in museums, cafés and grocery stores across the country, connecting artists with collectors. Since he first saw an Art-o-mat in a South Carolina gallery more than a decade ago, Eric Holowacz, the new president and chief executive officer of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, has been enamored with the dispensers.

“I thought, wow, what a great way to get affordable, available art for people without a lot of risk and represent artists from around the world,” Holowacz says. Through previous art world jobs, Holowacz brought Art-o-mats to towns in South Carolina, the Florida Keys and Australia.

“One of the things you realize when you host one of these machines is the minute people discover it … they are mesmerized,” Holowacz says. “It’s a rebirth of kind of a vice machine, a cigarette machine. There’s an enchantment about the rebirth of this mechanical object.”

In 1997 Whittington created the first Art-o-mat for a solo art show at a café in Winston-Salem, N.C. A graphic designer by trade and a conceptual artist on the side, he came upon an out-of-commission cigarette machine — they had been banned a year before — and filled it with $1 photographs. Once the art show ended, the café owner wanted to keep the machine, so Whittington recruited other artists to fill it. Then he spread the idea, picking up and renovating old machines.

Whittington’s favorite description of the Art-o-mat came from a North Carolina police officer, who told him, “Your art is right smart.”

“That is not a term you hear in the art world,” he says. “You hear that from people who are getting their hands dirty.”

His conversation with the cop led him to think that the vending machines could spread a love of the arts.

“I realized that I could reach people who had never lived with art or purchased art,” he says.

Each machine is unique. Many, including the 1970s era National brand 225 model repurposed for the Baton Rouge Gallery, have a 1950s’ look, including the Jetsons-influenced font of the Art-o-mat logo.

Jason Andreasen, executive director of the Baton Rouge Gallery, says he hopes the machine encourages more people to start collecting art.

“It’s such a cool thing to have,” he says, “such a fun thing to have in the gallery.”

For now Baton Rouge’s machine contains no local art. Artists must design cigarette pack-sized work that fits in the machine, and Whittington must approve every artwork.

“We try not to dictate what artists should do,” he says. “The machine is not forgiving as far as formats, so the artists have to follow directions. Sometimes the artists are free spirits so they don’t want to measure things at times.”

He encourages local artists to produce work for Art-o-matic.

“No one’s getting rich from making this happen,” Holowacz says, “but artists from around the world are now in Baton Rouge, and we want artists from Baton Rouge to go to the machines that are all over the place.”