Step Up to the Art-o-mat - Carolina Country

Step Up to the Art-o-mat

Clark Whittington is making local art accessible

By Pamela A. Keene | Photos by Art-o-mat unless otherwise indicated

Video courtesy of PBS

Cigarette vending machines are making a comeback — but not how you might think. Winston-Salem artist Clark Whittington’s Art-o-mat® creations are giving rise to old-time tobacco vending machines as a source to purchase affordable, one-of-a-kind art.

Clark Whittington

Clark Whittington, creator of the Art-o-mat

Clark, a conceptual artist who has found a way to vend art and develop new audiences for artists and makers, purchased his first defunct vending machine more than 20 years ago with a vision.

“Things seem to reinvent themselves when artists become involved,” he says. “Back in 1997, I refurbished that machine and put it in a local café as a one-man show with my black-and-white photographs inside. I sold them for $1 each. Little did I realize what I’d started.”

That first Winston-Salem machine became popular, and Clark connected with other local artists to sell their work this way.

“It’s always a challenge for artists to get their work out there, so we gave them the chance to fill the machine with their pieces and we sold them for $1 each.”

Pretty soon, Clark had other businesses and galleries asking for his Art-o-mats to showcase local artists. Today, his machines are located in arts centers, art museums, galleries, visitors centers and art retail stores.

Each machine is distinct in its design. They’re eye-catching and tend to pique people’s curiosity. 

Here’s how it works: Clark restores and rebrands the old metal and glass-front, boxlike machines. He designs packaging that fits in the former slots for cigarette packs and asks interested artists to create items that will fit in the spaces.

Working on art

Photo by Tricia Coyne

“We’ve gone up on our price to $5 each, but the art inside is what brings people back,” he says. “An artist can package a pair of paper earrings, a necklace or bracelet, hand-painted buttons, collages, works of fiber or paintings on wood blocks.

It’s really up to their own creativity and imagination.”

He designed standard-sized packaging and posted guidelines for artists on his website, including size requirements, preferred materials and suggestions for content and types of art.

Machines are placed with hosts, who sign contracts to accept a certain amount of packaged art and keep the machines stocked. Artists send him prototypes of their work — created to Clark’s specifications, of course — and he does the rest.

Each machine holds 10 to 22 artists’ work and offers descriptions of the makers whose work is inside. Buyers review the selections and choose which art they wish to purchase.

To date, Clark has placed nearly 100 machines all over North America and around the globe, in places like Australia, Austria and Hawaii. His marketing research shows that approximately two-thirds of his artists and purchasers are female.

“It’s all made in America and everything is made by hand, so it’s genuine,” he says. “We’ve been able to make a lot of impact.”

Clark has expanded the concept to his online store, offering Art-o-cartons with 10 works as well as special editions.

“It’s been a pretty amazing ride so far,” he says. “I really thought it would disappear after the first month, but over the years people have really been getting into it. So many people think they don’t like art, but at $5 each, it’s certainly worth a try, even if it’s just to live with a little bit of it."

An Art-o-mat near you

Several dozen Art-o-mats are located in North Carolina, including:

Find more locations

About the Author

Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who writes for magazines and newspapers across the Southeast and nationally.

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