Spring 2015 Where Art & Commerce Meet

Art-o-mat promotes artists while serving local communities—one retrofitted cigarette vending machine at a time.

Artist Clark Whittington remembers an incident that occurred in the late 1990s. He noticed a friend’s visceral reaction whenever he heard the crinkle of cellophane. That sound, often associated with someone tearing open a bag of chips or other snack food, made his friend want to immediately grab a snack too. He couldn’t help himself; the sound of cellophane was his cue to snack. Could this Pavlovian reaction somehow be used to entice shoppers to purchase other types of items? It was an idea worth considering and one that would eventually turn into Artists in Cellophane, the company responsible for the ingenious Art-o-mat vending machines that dispense unique works of art for just $5.

4994206581_2394e09188_oIn 1997, Whittington was staging an art show in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Part of that exhibit consisted of a retrofitted cigarette vending machine. He refurbished a machine, loaded it with cellophane-wrapped photographs mounted on blocks and tagged the device “Art-o-mat.” For just one dollar, visitors could explore the machine, drop a few quarters, pull the lever and be rewarded with a unique piece of art. The machine was an immediate conversation piece and the hit of the show.

That’s how Artists in Cellophane got its start. Today there are more than 120 Art-o-mat vending machines in the United States, Canada and overseas. These machines are successful in a variety of retail environments, from Whole Foods Market locations to fast-food outlets like District Taco to hotels like The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.

Yet, while the goal of most vending machines is to make money, Artists in Cellophane are in the game for a slightly different reason. According to Whittington, their mission is to “encourage art consumption by combining the worlds of art and commerce in an innovative form. AIC believes that art should be progressive, yet personal and approachable” and these conversation-starting vending machines help the organization do just that.

“Our goal is to get art into people’s hands. That’s what we want to do,” asserts Whittington who continually scouts new artists to supply art for his vending machines. “We’re making some money, but we’re also creating connections, meeting artists and potential patrons.”

4994207099_2b2629e6d7_oWhat’s in it for the venues that host an Art-o-mat vending machine? “Art-o-mat is often the cheapest thing they have in their place. It’s an ice breaker and helps engage customers as soon as they walk through the door,” notes Whittington. That’s why host locations vary from museums and art galleries to Whole Foods grocery stores. “I think that an Art-o-mat can sit anywhere as long as the person on the other end gets it and wants it,” says Whittington. “There are no rules really. For-profit venues that just enjoy what we’re doing and want to be part of it. I have one machine in a hair salon and she only has one client at a time. We also have machines in Las Vegas that thousands of people see each day.”

He admits that he hasn’t “had the best luck negotiating with malls unless they have a community aspect to their business plan. Whole Foods Market and places like that work very well because they are in the business of reaching out to the community, but not every business is like that.”

4994949420_7004140265_oWhittington retrofits each cigarette machine that eventually becomes an Art-o-mat and can even custom design the look of the machine to the host’s specifications. “It’s total ground-up restoration of the machines—inside and out,” notes Whittington. Some machines take $5 bills while others are token-operated.

Artists in Cellophane charges hosts a one-time leasing fee that covers the machine’s restoration and customization, delivery, the initial complement of art to be dispensed and an on-site art lecture given by Whittington. Many venues use Whittington’s visit as a chance to launch their machine within the community and it often builds a lot of local media buzz. The leasing fee for a machine varies depending on the machine and level of customization, with $5,000 being on the high end. Whittington says that hosts net about $1.50 from each sale of a piece of art that retails
for $5.

Artists in Cellophane assert that their hosts are not terribly concerned with the bottom line when it comes to their Art-o-mat machines. “They’d rather have something that’s unique and helps them engage their visitors,” says Whittington, “and that usually translates into sales in other areas of what they do.”

For more information, visit Artomat.org.

Andrea Rotondo

Andrea M. Rotondo is editor-in-chief of Specialty Retail Report. She’s spent more than two decades managing B2B, consumer, and trade magazines as diverse as Small Business Computing, Musician, and Pro Sound News. She writes regularly for Fodor’s Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, and Cruise Critic.
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