I spend a lot of time in Bisbee, Arizona, which is a town known for its funky disposition and artistic vibe. Some local shops sell bumper stickers that perfectly sum up the town: "It's like Mayberry on acid." If you're ever in southern Arizona, it's definitely worth a stop. One of the cool things I found recently in Bisbee is an "art vending machine." Green Valley News describes the project, which was unveiled a couple of years ago and is currently located in the Bisbee Convention Center right near the front of the restaurant Bisbee Table:
Looking to take home an original from one of Bisbee's beloved, talented local artists, but have limited funds or space? Trust the creative town to come up with a novel solution.
The Bisbee Arts Commission recently unveiled its latest project, a vintage cigarette machine repurposed to dole out palm-sized paintings, jewelry, fiberwork, and sculptures neatly slotted into yellow cigarette cartons.
The project was conceived as a way to provide a steady stream of revenue for both local artists and for the commission, said BAC chair Karen Schumacher.
"Half of the money goes to us, but the other half goes to the artist," Schumacher said.
Bisbee has wonderful local artists, so it was super cool to see the vending machine (it's called the "CIGART") and to be able to buy a tiny piece of local art. I was lucky enough to get a piece by artist and longtime Bisbee resident Ken Boe, who also facilitates the very cool "Bisbee Poetry Normalization Project," which helps place art and poetry in random places all over the town.
Finding this cool project in Bisbee made me want to know more about the practice of using old cigarette machines to dispense art and other non-cigarette items. I found an awesome article in Garden and Gun magazine called "The Southern History of the Art-o-mat" that traces their history to Winston-Salem, NC, when artist Clark Whittington created the first Art-o-mat in 1997. Garden and Gun explains:
Cigarette machines were once found throughout the country, but especially in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco empire. But by the 1990s, many were decommissioned and left to rust as the risks of smoking became more apparent — that is, until a local came up with an idea for a way to repurpose them.
Instead of putting cigarette packs in a machine, the artist Clark Whittington began inserting tiny pieces of art, in cartons of the same size—starting with his own and then expanding to include other artists — and dubbed it the Art-o-mat. He set out the first machine at a solo art show in a since-closed local coffee shop called Pennie University, in 1997.
The article goes on to describe how currently, Art-o-mats can be found in more than 200 places all over the United States, and also now in other countries. This official map keeps track of all of the machines—but doesn't capture all of the similar projects that aren't officially "Art-o-mats," such as the machine I encountered in Bisbee:
Today, Art-o-mats can be found at more than two hundred spots all over the country—in art museums, hotels, bars, and galleries (including the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, and the Esquire Tavern in San Antonio) as well as on countless college campuses. A map of the locations on the Art-o-mat website also shows one in Berlin and another in Australia.
The artists, who receive commissions from sales, apply through the website and must supply a certain number of works to keep up with the demand. The art objects themselves vary wildly, from a block print to a piece of jewelry to felted critters. There's a constant need for more art to refill the machines, which are leased to venues that purchase the art.
Whether officially "Art-o-mats" or not, these machines that dispense local art are magnificent. I urge you to look at the map and see if there are any in your area, and if so, go check them out and buy some local art! And if there aren't any near you, jump in your car and head to Bisbee, Arizona to check out its "CIGART" machine. I promise, you won't be disappointed!