Since May, nearly 1,000 visitors to the Chicago Cultural Center have plunked down $5 to use a rehabbed cigarette vending machine in a corner near the gift shop. Patrons of the squat, faux-wood-paneled machine drop a brass token into the coin slot and pull one of its 22 Lucite knobs. Above each knob, where there would traditionally be a placard for Camel or Parliament, is a small square with an artist's name, a title or description, and an image. What plops to the opening at the bottom is a one-of-a-kind piece of art in a box the size of a pack of smokes.
Art-o-Mat is the creation of North Carolina artist Clark Whittington, who has placed 39 of the machines in museums and cultural venues across the country. Whittington made the first Art-o-Mat for a 1997 exhibit at a Winston-Salem coffee shop, cleaning up an old machine--shop owners were dumping them in large numbers because they'd been outlawed in places where minors shopped--and stocking it with pieces of his own.
When the show closed, the owner of the coffee shop wanted to keep the machine on-site. Whittington contacted other artists he knew to keep it stocked. "Other businesses started to inquire about it, and then NPR picked up the story," he says. Before long the Whitney Museum in New York wanted one.
"It's like a miniaturized version of Cows on Parade," says Nathan Mason, curator of special projects for the city's Public Art Program, including 1999's cows. "It's very accessible." The Cultural Center's Art-o-Mat was a gift from Beaufort County, South Carolina--which had an extra one on hand--as thanks for the 26 cows sent there for exhibit in summer 2000.
Mason keeps the machine stocked by staying in touch with Whittington, who makes the ultimate decision about what goes into each one. The Art-o-Mat network includes more than 200 artists from eight countries. But Mason receives several requests a week from local artists; the main challenge, he says, is finding works that adhere to the size and weight requirements of the machine. It doesn't hurt if they have commercial appeal: "If there's an artist who sells really well, we'll have more sent to us."
Currently works by three local artists are for sale in Chicago's Art-o-Mat: naturalistic sketches and books from Susan Mart; individually painted plaster doodads molded from the trays that hold boxed chocolates, by Deanna Lee; and "Weener Ware" by Jeanmarie Petro--pins made from painted bottle caps decorated with trinkets. Pieces by locals Julian Cox, Marilynn Weitzman, and Joe Burlini are soon to come. Work is sold on consignment, with half the proceeds going to the artist and the other half split between Whittington and the host institution.
"Many of the Art-o-Mat artists are new, so the machine is their first showing," says Whittington. "And for many of the buyers, it's their first art purchase." Artists usually include URLs, phone numbers, or E-mail addresses with their works, and every once and a while it pays off. Recently someone who bought an Art-o-Mat piece by an artist in Japan contacted her later to buy another, larger work of art, says Whittington. "Her piece was bought in LA by someone from Iran. When she wrote me about the sale, she was so happy, I could tell she was about to pop."
The Cultural Center, at 78 E. Washington, is open seven days a week. For more information call 312-744-6630.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.