Exploring Art

Art to Go

By Pamela A. Keene  |  Photography courtesy of Clark Whittington, Provenance and Hattiesburg Convention Commission

Unique Art-o-mats created from old cigarette vending machines puts original art into the hands of the people.

When you’re traveling again, check out the cigarette vending machines in places like Hattiesburg, Chattanooga, Huntsville, Atlanta, and Winston-Salem. No, you won’t be purchasing tobacco products, but buying original art dispensed out of restored cigarette machines.

Winston-Salem, N.C., artist Clark Whittington has given these old vending machines a new purpose, decorating them and filling them with original artwork that people can purchase affordably and simply. He saw it as a way to help promote artists and get their works into the hands of people all over the world.

​“Back in 1997 I purchased and refurbished my first vending machine and put it in a local café as a one-man show with my black-and-white photographs inside,” he says. “I sold the photos for $1 each. Little did I realize what I’d started with my first Art-o-mat. Galleries, hotels, and other businesses started asking for them and it’s just grown from there.”

Today Whittington’s creations are located in museums, arts centers, cafes, museums, galleries, visitors’ centers, and art retail stores around the world. There’s one in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and another in Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. They seem to turn up in some unusual places.

​In the South, the Lake Charles, La., Arts and Humanities Council has one. Two more are located in Hattiesburg, Miss., at the Saenger Theater and at the Lake Terrace Convention Center.

​“Our first Art-o-mat was installed in the Saenger Theater and it was such a big hit that we ordered a second one,” says Amanda Hargrove, director of marketing for the Hattiesburg Convention Commission. “We got to choose the color — a light teal with bronzish orange, plus gold and silver on mirrors. Our Art-o-mat is really beautiful and it’s so much fun to watch people when they first see it. They always ask why we have a cigarette vending machine here, but as soon as we tell them it’s an art vending machine, they get it.

“You never know what you’re going to get when you put your money in and pull a lever,” she adds. “It can be really addictive. I’ve bought five myself and every piece of art has been fantastic.”

Whittington, who studied art and graphic design at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., has always had work as a creative, first for several agencies in North Carolina, then as a freelance designer, consultant, and production artist. By the mid-1990s, he wanted to stretch his creative wings. When cigarette vending machines were banned in the late 1990s, he saw an opportunity.

​“So many things are being repurposed and reinvented, and it was just natural to turn these abandoned metal hulks into something useful that would benefit artists in a new and different way,” he says. “Mechanically they were operable, but I dressed them up, gave them sparkle and some new life.”

​Whittington solicits art from makers around the world. He has designed standard-sized packaging that will fit in the cigarette-vending slots, and he has published artists guidelines and suggestions for the preferred materials, art content, and types of art.

The locations that accept Art-o-mat machines sign contracts to receive a certain amount of art and to keep the machines stocked. Each holds 10 to 22 artists’ works, along with background about the artist whose work is inside.

​“By developing the packaging and providing specifications for the artists, I’ve been able to easily ship new works,” he says. “And we’re always on the lookout for new artists to be part of the project.”

​You can’t miss an Art-o-mat once you’ve seen one. Each has a distinctive design, dressed up in retro colors and throw-back embellishments, like astro-stars, stylized typefaces, and flashy decorations. The exteriors often reflect the communities where they are located.

For instance, the Art-o-mat in The Old No. 77 Hotel in New Orleans is painted a subtle and sophisticated green. It suits the atmosphere of the property, located in the Warehouse Arts District of the city. The property strongly supports the arts with quarterly gallery exhibitions by local artists and an active artist-in-residence program.

​“Art and supporting artists is an important part of our brand, and we look for unusual ways to engage our guests in art experiences,” says Shannon Overholser, communications manager for Provenance Hotels, which owns The Old No. 77 Hotel. “Our Art-o-mat is very popular and a great way to provide an interactive and accessible experience. It fits in nicely with the hotel with its industrial and lofty vibe. Located in our main lobby, our Art-o-mat has a vintage feel and mid-century modern touches to complement the style of the hotel.” 

​Whittington’s concept has spread worldwide with more than 100 machines across North America and around the globe. There are Art-o-mats in Australia, Austria, and Hawaii. The biggest concentration is along the Eastern Seaboard. Other clusters are located along the West Coast.

He’s received national recognition for Art-o-mat over the years, including articles in Reader’s Digest, ABC News, Newsweek and Playboy. The concept is posted on Pinterest with photos of the rehabilitation dispensers in dozens of locations.

Sometimes Whittington says he’s surprised by the success of his concept. “When I stocked that first refurbished vending machine with my photos, I had no idea where it would lead,” he says. “And now, well, sometimes it just amazes me.”


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