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Art by the Pack
Vintage cigarette machine is transformed into Art*o*mat

By LARRY MUHAMMAD April 12, 2004
The Courier-Journal

Catherine Rubin fed a $5 bill into the vintage cigarette machine in the Kentucky Center's lobby, pulled a knob and out popped not a pack of smokes, but art a miniature relief sculpture in its own little box.

"Did you see this?" asked Rubin, showing the tiny slab with the motorcycle-jacket etching to Debbie Shannon. "This is kind of cool. It's a zipper."

"Reminds me of Bruce Springsteen," said Shannon, the Kentucky Center's arts education vice president, who then bought a boxed piece of Styrogami from the dispenser, a teensy Styrofoam sculpture in the origami style.

"It's kind of like a grab bag when I was a kid," said Rubin, a Louisville arts consultant. "You never know what you're going to get."

During a lunch-break shopping spree, the two bought a Matchbox Shrine "In loving memory of Perdita" by bird connaisseuse Emily Hoffman; a set of L.S. King's self-centered fortune-telling cards called Tarot de Narcissist; a collection of pinhole portraits from "the face maker" Joe Dore; a 3-D dragon collage by Mollie Brown; and a paper sculpture from Sundries Card Co.

The contraption that sells them is called Art*o*mat, a visionary makeover for old tobacco dispensers that is transforming original artworks into objects of mass appeal.


The Kentucky Center machine is one of 64 nationwide exposing to new markets the work of some 400 artists from 10 countries sculptures, paintings, glassware, textiles, photographs, mini-books, conceptual pieces each piece unique and all in boxes the size of a pack of Parliaments.

More than 10,000 of these adorable little objects d'art have been sold since the Art*o*mat first hit the scene in Winston-Salem, N.C., four years ago.

"Reconfiguring a cigarette machine is powerful," said Shannon, who first saw the Art*o*mat in the gift shop of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and lobbied successfully to get one at the center (it arrived in February).

"But there's also something you can't explain. It draws people in. The whole notion of all these artists contributing work in an anonymous way is fascinating. Their names and contact information are there, but usually they never know the people who get their work."

Clark Whittington, the North Carolina artist who started the enterprise with some ingenious colleagues, said in a telephone interview, "We're a hybrid between retail and art, an odd void that has kind of been neglected."

It all began with an epiphany, after Whittington witnessed a friend's Pavlovian compulsion to head for a vending machine whenever he heard cellophane being torn off a snack. Whittington drew a vending machine in his sketchbook, which was noticed by another friend who suggested converting a discarded cigarette machine into an arts dispenser and voila! The original Art*o*mat was installed in 1997 at Penny Universitie (now Mary's of Course Cafe) in Winston-Salem, selling Whittington's pocket-sized, black-and-white photographs for $1 each.

Afterward, he began rescuing cigarette machines from area junkyards and landfills, transforming them into miniature art galleries with funky new paint jobs.

Now they're located everywhere from Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville to Whole Foods Markets in Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. They're in homey venues such as the Flying M Coffee House in Boise, Idaho, and in prime cultural spots such as the Whitney, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art.

"People give them to me now," Whittington said. "There's not a whole lot else you can find to do with an old cigarette machine. And we're dealing with more high-profile people, in regards to the hosting institutions. Like the Kentucky Center; they have a pretty valid art collection."

The first Art*o*mat in Kentucky went to SoKO, a designer eyewear boutique in Lexington, last December.

The machine in the Kentucky Center lobby, one of the few that accepts bills instead of tokens, came from the bar of the Salem Inn, a hotel in Winston-Salem. Redecorated in a brightly colored circus motif, it has sold more than 200 works of art since February, with proceeds benefiting the center's arts-education program.

"It's a perfect fit," Shannon said, "because our education programs are about art for everybody. We've got programs for teachers, for kids in community centers, a whole range of activities that make quality art accessible to everybody, intellectually and financially. Art*o*mat's the same thing."

Host locations pay a one-time fee of $2,100 for the machines and receive $1.50 from each $5 art piece purchased. Artists get $2.50 per sale. The other $1 goes to Whittington for machine maintenance.

Whittington and his staff judge potential artists/contributors on craftsmanship, originality and adherence to strict size and shape requirements, and ability to produce a minimum of 50 individual works in dispensable packs. (See for information on hosting a machine or contributing art.)

Charles Boggs, one of six Kentucky artists represented in Art*o*mat, was recommended by the Weatherspoon Art Gallery in Greensboro, N.C. He has created such objects as an abstract blob sculpture called "Malignant Neoplasm."

"I get a check here and there, but it's not about the money," the Hazard resident said. "It's the idea of the artist being accepted, of putting a little essence of myself into the package, and by someone else touching it, we're connected somehow.

"When I go shopping, I sometimes wonder how many people have touched the same product. How many people have touched the same box of Cheer? I think it would be interesting if on the box there was a counter, to total how many people have touched it from creation, to shipping, to stocking and purchase."

Rubin, who has collected at least a dozen Art*o*mat pieces, said that without the machine she couldn't afford to be such a conspicuous consumer of art.

"I had some friends over for a birthday party. The kids got a little bored, so I got out my Art*o*mat toys," she said. "I had little marionettes performing on the outside of the box there was a wooden dance floor. It was really entertaining for them. I've always liked artwork in miniature, and I give gifts.

"Although, when it comes right down to it, the question's going to be: 'Will I part with it?'"