I see this quirky little machine every time I walk in Whole Foods HQ downtown to get a healthy helping of freshly made vegetable juice. But I’m usually in too much of a hurry to pay much attention to it. I kinda always knew what it was, just never *really* looked at it. However, I had a few seconds the other day and I FINALLY took a closer look and was just as charmed as I always thought I would be!
It’s a vending machine for reasonably priced art ($5!)! Yay!
According to their website:
The inspiration for Art-o-mat® came to artist Clark Whittington while observing a friend who had a Pavlovian reaction to the crinkle of cellophane. When the friend heard someone opening a snack, he had the uncontrollable urge to have one too.
In June 1997, Clark was set to have a solo art show at a local cafe, Penny Universitie in Winston-Salem, N.C. He used a recently-banned cigarette machine to create the first Art-o-mat®. It was installed along with 12 of his paintings. The machine sold Clark’s black & white photographs mounted on blocks for $1.00 each.
The show was scheduled to be dismantled in July 1997. However, owner Cynthia Giles loved the machine and asked that it stay permanently. At that point, it was clear that involvement of other artists was needed if the project was going to continue. Cynthia introduced Clark to a handful of other local artists and the group Artists in Cellophane (AIC) was formed.
These little machines are all over the nation, with four locations in Austin (they are currently in Whole Foods Global HQ on Lamar, Whole Foods @ Arbor Trails, Whole Foods in Bee Cave, and the Mercury store in the 2nd Street District – Whole Foods @ The Domain is in the works). I LOVE this concept because I think these little pieces of art make great gifts, and are a way better way to spend $5 than on a coke and a couple of candy bars or useless pieces of junk that you may get from other vending machines.
I was so intrigued that I just had to find out more. So, I got in touch with the owner of the concept, Clark Whittington. First off, he had only positive things to say about Austin, which is not surprising in the least. He says that Mercury was the first venue in Austin and they’ve been there about 6 years or so – he says that Mercury has been great to work with. Whole Foods then contacted him and has since taken the concept under their wing, which he says has taken the concept to a whole new level.
He also told me that, even though the machines are throughout the US, there are several Austin-based artists who have work in the Art-o-mats. Here’s the list of current Austin-based artists:
Clark says that the real mission of the project is to promote artists. They have about 120 machines and about 300 or so participating artists. He describes the concept as the balance of art versus commerce.
I asked him how the concept has grown over the years. How it had started from one machine in a coffee shop in Winston-Salem to 120 machines across the nation. Here’s what he said:
I don’t really contact people because when I do I get treated like I’m selling vinyl siding, so I wait until I hear from people and then go from there. We’re an art project – it’s not the best business model. It’s really weird how art centers and museums – if I pitch someone – they just start crunching numbers. Lots of times, businesses like Whole Foods and Mercury understand that there’s more too it than every little nickel and dime. Art-o-mat is not pretentious – we are reaching out to everyone, everyone is invited to participate.
I just want to share this with the world – with people that do get it. The last thing I’d want to do is expand in a way that doesn’t mesh with what we’re doing. We have to be calculated and relaxed with how we do things. Artists and hosts have to find us on their own.
Logistically, every machine is owned by the studio – not only to control the quality of inventory – but because, at the end of the day, this represents Clark’s livelihood. There are a few collectors that own their machine, but most are on a lease. Then the host buys art from Art-o-mat on invoice, as needed. Clark works with artists to curate and distribute the art for the machines.
Clark says they are in need of artists, especially Texas artists. If you, or someone you know, has an interest in either hosting a machine or providing art for the machine – you can visit Art-o-mat’s contact page on their website. He seems to be pretty responsive. Want to see some amazing samples of the type of art work in the machines? Visit their Flickr page.