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Art-o-mat's Still Smoking

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You've been to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art countless times.

Surely you've snapped selfies out front by its leaping deer installment, gazed contemplatively at the Remington sculptures, and been transported by expansive Western landscapes into a bygone era.

Maybe you've Instagrammed, tweeted and Snapchatted pictures of Georgia O'Keeffe's work and been lured in by splashy special exhibits featuring the likes of Andy Wahrhol and Ansel Adams. And let's face it, who doesn’t have a soft spot for its seasonal Jingle Rails Christmas Train?

At some point you've definitely trundled up the stairs to the to check out the contemporary arts galleries, or learn about the histories of native peoples.

This Art-o-mat on the second floor of the Eiteljorg Museum offers visitors inexpensive and original local art as souvenirs. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH PETE
  • Photo by Joseph Pete
  • This Art-o-mat on the second floor of the Eiteljorg Museum offers visitors inexpensive and original local art as souvenirs.

And one thing is certain: No trip to Indianapolis' unique museum of western art in the White River State Park is complete without making a purchase at the Art-o-mat vending machine on the second floor.

It's a sleek refurbished old cigarette vending machine that's filled with cigarette pack-size art, including small paintings, jewelry and photos splashed across tiny blocks of wood. They sit perfectly on your desk at work or a dresser at home. They're usually only $5, and they're probably the cheapest and most kooky way you can get into art collecting.

Art-o-mat founder Clark Whittington, an artist from North Carolina, has been repurposing retired cigarettes machines for the past 18 years for exactly that reason, to make art collecting more democratic. Whittington, who's owned two galleries, wants to eliminate barriers to buying and owning art.

He thinks people in the art world can sometimes be too elitist and can even kind of sympathize with the perspective of former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who infamously tried to restrict National Endowment for the Arts funding, at least up to a point. He doesn't favor the suppression of art, but sees why people would reject the idea of taxpayer funding for art they don't understand.

"I don't agree with him trying to kill the NEA, but I think sometimes artists are trying to make a statement, which gets in the way of the work they want to create," Whittington says. "I'm not a prude or anything, but I'm not a big fan of art that tries to freak people out. I want to share the art, and that means people shouldn't be alienated by it."

He believes art should be for the people.

"In my experience, people are open to my ideas if I'm not condescending to them, and [if I’m] receptive to what they have to say," he says. "Gallery spaces can be pretty uptight and make people feel bad and uncomfortable. Maybe as a byproduct of being a conceptual artist in the South, I've already tried hard to treat people with respect. If you respect them, they'll let you do the craziest things."

Now Whittington's populism is paying off. Art-o-mats are in more than 130 locations nationwide, including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and a growing number of Whole Foods nationwide.

Whittington is currently renovating five cigarette vending machines, with a lot of WD-40 and an occasional stop by a car wash, including for a new Whole Foods supermarket in Los Angeles and a restaurant in Memphis.

And he is always on the lookout for new artists, who have the chance to showcase a smaller version of their work in a national network. He says he'd like to recruit more to participate in the Eiteljorg Art-o-mat, since part of the focus is to showcase local art.

"No one gets rich from this," he says. "No one makes a lot of money, but there's a stream of income and it can mean a high return in good PR. Money isn't going to shoot out of the ground like bubbles of crude, but it will help you engage with your community and maybe sell bigger pieces or get larger commissions later on."

The smallish vending machine that spits out art has been a huge hit at the Eiteljorg.

"It's a great piece visitors can interact with," says Ashley Holland, Eiteljorg's assistant curator of Native American Art. "They're able to purchase a work of art, and there are many different types of work-- from jewelry to paintings and knickknacks. When we refill it, we usually get different artists and different types of art."

The Art-o-mat gives artists an opportunity to promote their work. One went so far as to have buyers register online just so he could see where his work was being purchased.  - PHOTO BY JOSEPH PETE
  • Photo by Joseph Pete
  • The Art-o-mat gives artists an opportunity to promote their work. One went so far as to have buyers register online just so he could see where his work was being purchased.

Eiteljorg visitors buy up a ton of the compact little works of art. The museum has to place a new order for about 200 more pieces every two or three months, Holland explains.

"It's high volume; people really love it,” she says. “The only complaints we get are when the art gets stuck in the machine."

It can jam from time to time because the machinery is old and aging, according to Holland. But the museum keeps extra pieces at the front desk that it can trade out if the Art-o-mat eats your bills and gives you nothing in return.

Holland would recommend an Art-o-mat to any other galleries or cultural institutions in town. She says it helps engage audiences and gives them something to talk about.

"You hear that it's fun," she says. "It's exciting. It's different."

Whittington first debuted the Art-o-mat at a café exhibit in North Carolina in 1997, after he was inspired by a Pavlovian response a friend of his had every time he heard the crinkle of a cellophane wrapper of a vending machine item. The sound made his friend want a snack. His repurposed cigarette vending machine that plopped out art for a $1 was one of 13 pieces at the show, but it was such a huge hit that the owner wanted to keep it there permanently.

"Now we're at 130," he says. "We try to build them so they're not cookie-cutter, but there's only so much you can do. You can paint the fiberglass or take another approach and paint all over. In general, we like them to look clean and inviting and pretty."

The show "American Pickers" has distorted the market for old cigarette machines, greatly driving up the price of something only a few people might want for “man caves,” according to Whittington. But soon they realize he's the only real buyer anymore and then come down in price.

Clark Whittington (directly left of the Art-o-mat) poses at the opening for an Art-o-mat in Sante Fe, New Mexico.  - COURTESY ART-O-MAT SANTE FE
  • Courtesy Art-o-Mat Sante Fe
  • Clark Whittington (directly left of the Art-o-mat) poses at the opening for an Art-o-mat in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

Part of his mission is to inspire more people to become art collectors and lift up more local artists, getting them in front of an audience.

"I wish we had more Indianapolis artists," he says. "There are good artists in Indianapolis, and I wish more would step up."

The Art-o-mat seeks out pieces from all over the world that weren't just cranked out on a digital printer.

"Generally, we like some form of human touch," Whittington adds. "We're looking for something that can be sold for around $5. …and we want people from all walks of life buying this art."

Not only do the patrons benefit, but so do local artists, as Art-o-mats provide good exposure for those who create it, by reaching a wide audience.

"It's something more tangible than a website," he says. "It can lead to relationships that can lead to larger work down the road.

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