Caveat Vendor

A converted cigarette machine peddles a new addiction: Miniature art

I drop my first $5 token into the Art-o-mat, pull one of the yellowed knobs, and ker-chunk: My selection hits the bottom of the machine. My prize is a beat-up block of gray wood, wrapped in cellophane and precisely the size of a pack of cigarettes. On it, Dolen Smith has written in a scary script and even scarier spelling:

SCAR #64

I cut the webbing of my left hand between the thumb and the forfinger with a yellow exacto knife. I took seven stitches. Self inflicted wound.

At $5 a pop, sometimes you get what you pay for with the Art-o-mat.
Deron Neblett
At $5 a pop, sometimes you get what you pay for with the Art-o-mat.

I drop in another token and pull the knob under Laura Lark's name. Ker-chunk: another cellophane-wrapped prize, this one in a little white box. On its front is glued a shrunken Xerox copy of a book cover: How to Photograph Women. Under the title, a bikini babe beams for the camera. Inside the box, there are two more Xerox pages from the same book. The text for Figure 18A instructs the would-be cheesecake photographer that "the lens should be even with, or lower, than the boobs." And then there's the niftiest bit: On a rectangle of shrinky-dink plastic, Lark has rendered yet another of the book's illustrations as a line drawing. "Beverly" stands knee-high in some ocean, smiling as she lowers her bathing suit's top.

I insert a third token, and this time pull the knob labeled "Bronzes by the Quality Individuals." The token clatters to the bottom of the machine. I retrieve it, plunk it back into the coin slot, pull the lever, and…


I jiggle the Art-o-mat. I try to jiggle gently; the cigarette machine looks like a relic from the '50s, and I don't want to hurt it.

"You lost your money?" asks a smoothie-drinking woman behind me.

"Looks like it," I say.

"You smoke?" she asks. Meaning: How dare you score a nicotine fix here in Whole Foods, Kirby Drive's temple of organic produce?

"It's art," I say. I start to show her my treasures, then stop, sure that neither would improve her opinion of me. Instead, I wave toward the machine's nifty sign, the display on its top and its box of DiverseWorks brochures.

"Oh, art!" she says. I am redeemed; all is forgiven. What could be more wholesome than art? I smile and hide the evidence in my purse.

A day later, Paul Arensmeyer and Chris Olivier open the Art-o-mat for corrective surgery. Chris diagnoses the problem: a cardboard Quality Individuals box fell strangely, smashed itself and jammed the machine.

"So the heavy side goes in back?" Paul asks. "Or heavy in front?"

"Front," says Chris.

Paul looks abashed. A DiverseWorks volunteer, he's the machine's main caretaker, and stops by Whole Foods at least twice a week to restock. Chris, an artist with work in the Art-o-mat, baby-sat it over Christmas while Paul was away.

The store's customer service desk keeps both their home numbers handy for such breakdowns. Age has made the machine crotchety, a temperament worsened perhaps by the large number of people who continue to yank its knobs.

Since '97, Clark Whittington, father of the Art-o-mat, has installed roughly 20 of the machines across the country. That's "roughly" because Clark loses count: There's one at the Whitney Museum of American Art, another at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and a bunch scattered at cafes, hospitals and community-college art departments. In his hometown, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he's installed eight, including one at Wellspring Grocery, the local equivalent of Whole Foods. But the Houston Art-o-mat out-vends all eight of the Winston-Salem machines combined. Since it arrived at Whole Foods in November, it's sold almost 600 works. "The mack daddy," Clark calls it.

He means that purely as praise: The Art-o-mat is designed for high volume. But the vending machine is also supposed to be fun, to draw attention to artists and to generate money for charity. And that's about it.

In conversation, Clark doesn't get mired in philosophical questions. Do the low prices and small sizes somehow demean art? Are Art-o-mats a commentary on mechanization? An end run around the gallery system? Or simply a cute twist on the ol' museum gift shop? What does it mean that the machines used to sell cigarettes? Is an Art-o-mat a rehabilitated death machine? Or is it purveying a substance as sneakily addictive as tobacco? And does an Art-o-mat in the Whitney mean something different from one in Whole Foods?

Clark prefers to talk about concrete stuff: how he finds old cigarette machines on eBay; how he's got 11 in his basement, waiting to be rehabbed; how he's got a lead on a beauty in West Virginia. He's delighted that at some places, like the Andy Warhol Museum, the Art-o-mat is treated as an exhibit, while at others, like the Whitney, it falls under the retail department.

Clark foresees Art-o-mats spreading across the nation; he figures he'll spend the rest of his life taking care of them. "Change is inevitable," he writes on "Except from vending machines."

While the Whole Foods Art-o-mat is open, Paul and Chris restock it. Paul has brought a huge box full of goodies, most of which Clark shipped from Winston-Salem. The Art-o-mat group, Artists in Cellophane, started with a handful of Clark's North Carolina friends; it now includes more than 100 artists from places like Brooklyn, Korea and Ghana.

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