Cheaper Than a Pack of Cigs

How the maker of the Cosmopolitan’s Art-o-mat provided art lovers with a $5 entry into the art world

If you’ve explored the Cosmopolitan, surely you’ve noticed its scattering of old-school cigarette vending machines, which deliver $5 miniature works of art instead of Marlboro Reds. They’re called Art-o-mats, and they originated as a conceptual art piece by Clark Whittington. Today the Art-o-mat has grown to sell work from 300-400 artists from 10 countries. There are 100 machines in the U.S.A. (and machines in Australia, Canada and Austria), with the Cosmopolitan housing seven. Vegas Seven spoke with Art-o-mat’s founder and creator to discuss its origins, its appeal and how it wound up in a casino.

What was the inspiration behind Art-o-mat?

My art has always been conceptual. I would base a lot of my work on things that I observed. I came up with the idea of putting art in a vending machine based on a friend’s reaction to snack wrappers. When he’d hear the crinkle of cellophane, he’d always go and buy something for himself. When I moved to North Carolina in 1997, cigarette machines were being banned and thrown away. That became the foundation of the first Art-o-mat machine. The idea of art in cellophane was to take art that wasn’t marketable and repackage it into something consumer friendly.

Are people purchasing the art simply for the experience of using a cigarette machine?

It’s the experience at first. Repeat purchases are based on the fact that they enjoyed their first experience. Some people keep coming back and amass a huge collection. We’re reaching this middle ground of people that have been alienated by all of the pretentiousness of the art world. We are introducing people to art who may not have bought art before in an affordable manner. The whole art of buying something out of Art-o-mat is sort of like a piece of art, anyway.

Did you anticipate having so many machines?

No way! My art has always been pretty much a flop. The first Art-o-mat was one of 13 pieces I had at a show in a coffee shop that featured my own art in there for a dollar a piece. I expected to get rid of the machine after the 30-day show ended. At the end of the month the coffee shop owner said that I couldn’t take it because it was “too cool.” But I couldn’t keep it filled with my own art, so we invited other artists to sell their art.

How did you connect with the Cosmopolitan?

As crazy as the Cosmopolitan can be about pushing the envelope, they are very normal people that understand how to make connections with people. One of [director of content and entertainment at the Cosmo] Chris Burns’ buddies was an Art-o-mat artist. He mentioned the machines to Chris and got him intrigued with the concept. He contacted us directly, I met with him and he was very approachable. I wanted to start with one machine, they wanted more and we took it from there.

How do you select your artists?

They select us. It sounds cheesy, but I never want anyone to be a part of this because they felt pressured to do it. I want people to approach us naturally. It’s cool because you can get your work literally into the hands of people. Any artist out there—and we need artists—go to our website, follow the guidelines. We do have some Vegas artists that have signed on recently [Kelly Murphy, John Gregg, Stephanie Ford, Lisa Fields Clark, Thomas Bumblauskas, Christopher Ralph Vasquez and Alyssa Risley]. That’s kind of cool because we want each city and machine to be a resource for local artists.

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