WINSTON-SALEM, NC - Artists In Cellophane is reaching out to an ever-wider public by breathing new life into retired cigarette vending machines rescued from the trash heap and filling them with miniature works created by a rapidly expanding network of artists nationwide.
Artists in Cellophane's mission statement: "To create an outlet where artists can expose their name and work to people who would otherwise not see it. We believe that art should be progressive, yet personal and approachable. What better way to do this than with a heavy cold steel machine?"
Since creating the first "Art*o*Mat" machine in 1997, placed here in a local cafĂ© and filled with the work of five artists, Artists In Cellophane founder Clark Whittington has been barraged with requests. He is scrambling to find and refurbish enough cigarette machines to accommodate the cigarette-box-sized original works of art of more than 120 artists from across the U.S., as well as some overseas contributors.
To date, "Art*o*Mat" machines are on location in more than 20 art galleries, museums, coffee shops, bookstores and other venues across the nation, including New York City's New Museum of Contemporary Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, and Ohio's Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art (where the machine is sited next to a Starbucks Coffee kiosk). And exciting new placements are continually in the works.
Each column of an "Art*o*Mat" machine features the work of one artist, with a brief description of his or her genre of art displayed in the column facings once used to highlight cigarette brands. The patron selects an artist and initiates the vend; the actual, one-of-a-kind original work of art remains a surprise until it is dispensed. Each piece is accompanied by contact information for those who wish to purchase a larger work by the artist.
Works of art for sale in "Art*o*Mats" include ceramic pieces, linocut prints, water colors, oil paintings, photographs, miniature bronze sculptures, and a series of Internet participation pieces that invite the patron to enter a secret code that enables him or her to download a one-of-a-kind image from the Internet and mount it in a hand-crafted frame vended from the machine. The growing group of participating artists hails from across the U.S., Canada, Korea and Africa, and Whittington is speaking with artists from the Netherlands and Thailand.
Once a machine is placed on location, Whittington, who stocks an ample inventory of vendible pieces from his network of artists, ships an assortment to the location contact from his Winston-Salem, NC headquarters. The recipient then assumes responsibility for stocking and servicing the machine. The fortunate locations in Whittington's neighborhood call on him for assistance when needed.
While the "Art*o*Mat" by its nature is not a profit-making venture, its success is measured by the number of pieces it dispenses to an art-hungry public, and according to Whittington, that number is growing.
Whittington recently struck a deal with Whole Foods Market, the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods, with 121 stores in 22 states and the District of Columbia, which will sponsor its own "Art*o*Mat" machine. Whittington will initially place the "Art*o*Mat" in a Washington, DC Whole Foods store, and the retailer will then take the machine "on tour" through its network of outlets, shipping the "Art*o*Mat" on its grocery trucks from venue to venue in the mid-Atlantic region.
"We had a machine in Diverseworks!, a gallery in Houston, and they arranged to move the machine to a local Whole Foods Market for added visibility during the holiday season, which is a slow time for the gallery. The machine did phenomenally , it sold a record 40 pieces of art a week," Whittington told V/T. "That's how we initially got involved with Whole Foods, and they've been great to work with. They're paying me to ready the machine for the mid-Atlantic region so I can do it right, and I'm having a crate built for them to safely transport it around in on their trucks. They are buying the artwork in advance for $3 a piece, and selling it for $5; they're giving all proceeds to charity." Artists in Cellophane will also soon place a machine in a Whole Foods store in Chapel Hill, NC.
Whittington emphasized how much he appreciates the support of Whole Foods Market, because like many conventional vending operators, Whittington finds all too many venues more interested in getting a piece of the pie, small as the pie may be, than seeing the value of the service provided to their patrons. "So many people we talk to want a cut, and there's really very little to go around; "Art*o*Mat" is not about money. If you stick a nail in the wall of the museum and hang up a painting, they don't expect to get any money from it," Whittington commented. "Somehow once they see money go into a slot, they lump it together with industry; they don't recognize that it's art, not commerce. That can be very frustrating, and we lost placement in a major museum because of it."
This is a matter of degree, he noted. Museums surely deserve some remuneration, because they promote art and serve their communities. They need only recognize that the machines' primary purpose is not to turn a profit; they are not big revenue producers. And a number of businesses have been very enthusiastic about the public relations, community service and image-building potential of an "Art*o*Mat" placement.
Whittington observed that it's usually possible to tell what kind of business he is dealing with quite early in the conversation. "When they start talking dollars and cents, it's a red flag that they are not going to be supportive of our project and its mission, and I'm ready to walk away. The press they receive is payment enough, on multiple levels."
Artists in Cellophane has been written up in such highly circulated publications as The Times of London and USA Today, and Whittington has been interviewed on National Public Radio, ABC's World News Tonight, and numerous regional TV stations in venues where "Art*o*Mat" machines have been situated.
Whittington added that the locations which support the project do so wholeheartedly. The majority of the galleries and museums in which he places the machines are now willing to absorb the costs of retrofitting the machines to take tokens, which generally sell for $5, or "golden dollars," as well as the expense incurred by the artists to refurbish each machine with a unique, whimsical appearance, and the cost of shipping the equipment.
"In the early days, we paid for it all just because we believed in our cause so much, and those costs made a huge dent in our budget, which was basically non-existent," Whittington told V/T. "Now people know the concept and they like it, and I'm very happy they are willing to pay to make the project right. It can cost up to $2,000 for me to restore a machine and deliver it if it has to be shipped far away."
Artists In Cellophane also does its part to benefit the communities it serves. Whittington recently placed an "Art*o*Mat" in the lobby of Winston-Salem's Brenner Children's Hospital at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. The hospital receives a $1 donation from each $3 sale, for art supplies for sick children who are patients at the hospital, and the artist is paid $2 per piece; Whittington waives his portion of the proceeds.
In general, the artist receives 50 percent of each "Art*o*Mat" sale and Whittington receives a small portion for the cost of refurbishing the equipment, placing it and keeping it up and running.
In keeping with the medical theme and the importance of appealing to children, Whittington designed the machine at the children's hospital to bring to mind the children's game "Operation"; the piece lights up and buzzes. "Each machine has a unique design now and is a piece of art in itself," said Whittington, "and we try to tailor each to the location we place it in."
The Brenner's Children's Hospital machine is located in the main entrance lobby, in a busy area beside the hospital gift shop. The majority of the machine's patrons buy the artwork as gifts for patients. Hospital staff has also taken to collecting the art while supporting a good cause, according to Whittington.
Most of the 20 slots in the hospital's "Art*o*Mat" machine are filled with works from hospital employees who are also artists, the majority of whom have never exhibited or sold their art.
"That's our whole goal," commented Whittington. "To promote art; to get more people involved in the arts and to get it out there to the public."
Whittington's latest project is creating a stained glass front for an "Art*o*Mat," most likely destined for the Washington, DC extravaganza. He is also readying a machine for a college art gallery in Charleston, SC, and an arts group in Asheville, NC has commissioned a machine that it will rotate among various locations around town.
The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, NC, will host an "Art*o*Mat" exhibit this spring, featuring several machines and significant objects related to the project, including Artists in Cellophane's bent coin collection. "It's made up of coins that cause me to have to drive across town and unjam machines," Whittington explained. "Some are obviously too tweaked for vending, but people put them in the machines anyway , some are funny." Also on display will be the permanent Artists in Cellophane collection of "Art*o*Mat" art, comprised of more than 400 sample works of art.
Information on Artists in Cellophane's "Art*o*Mat" is available at www.artomat.org.