Saturday, January 3, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: The Art-o-Mat

This post was prompted by a post I happened to see today on Hyperallergic, following an old link to an article about the Art-o-mat®.

What is an Art-o-mat® you ask? If the name suggests some connection with the culture of automation (and naming) of the 1950s and 1960s, you're right on track. A group called Artists in Cellophane, the brain child of artist Clark Whittington, operates a fleet of old cigarette vending machines from the period that now dispense art rather than cigarettes--machines Whittington has dubbed Art-o-mats®.

I first encountered an Art-o-mat® in the entrance lobby of the Crocker Museum of Art, in Sacramento, in the summer of 2012 on my first visit to that museum. A $5 bill and a pull on a lever dispensed a cigarette pack-sized art object of my choice (eventually--the machines are old, finicky, and not tolerant of much deviation from the size and weight of a cigarette pack; my choice got stuck and a staff member had to open the machine with a key to retrieve it). If you're old enough to remember cigarette machines, the idea makes instant sense. I had to buy something, just to support the whimsy. Sitting on my bookshelf now is a small (very small) painting of a Laysan Duck by artist Alice Dean. I had misplaced the little painting right after buying it, until yesterday, when looking through a small travel bag I had used that day two years ago, I finally found the purchase again. The finding of my little duck portrait and seeing the article about the Art-o-mat® coming a day apart was the serendipity that prompted this post.

This being the start of a new year--another bit of serendipity--and the start of new years being the traditional time for starting new projects, I went to the Art-o-mat® website (well worth a visit) after reading the Hyperallergic post, suddenly curious about the location of other Art-o-mat® machines that might be near me. I see that there are seven in the Bay Area, four in San Francisco, the one at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, one at the San Carlos Public Library, and one on the Stanford campus, in Palo Alto. In San Francisco, there's an Art-o-mat® at the Exploratorium (Pier 15), one each at two locations of The American Conservatory Theater (415 Geary St. and 1119 Market St.), and one at the RayKo Photo Center (428 3rd St.). According to the Art-o-mat® site, there are more than 100 working Art-o-mat® machines around the United States. You can find them all on a map on the site. Pictured at top is the Art-o-mat® at The Exploratorium (photo from the Art-o-mat® website). Perhaps I will attempt to make a collection of artworks from all the Bay Area Art-o-mat® machines in 2015. If you're an artist and willing to meet the stringent dimensional requirements that allow the machines to work, Artists in Cellophane is looking for contributors.


  1. Great article Colin. One correction: The Art-o-mat is in San Carlos, not San Mateo. 610 Elm Street.

  2. Thanks. I knew that, but typed San Mateo for some reason. Corrected.


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