Art-O-Mat dispenses affordable collectibles at Polk Museum of Art

Twelve years and 85 Art-O-Mats later, he makes a full-time job of revamping the machines—with the assistance of an auto body repair expert—and finding homes for them in art museums and other venues across the nation. (Click on an image of each Art-O-Mat online to see its location, and view before-and-after pictures of the restoration process on Flickr.)

For a mere five bucks, each lovingly restored Art-O-Mat dispenses a pocket-sized artwork. Resulting acquisitions run the gamut from jewelry to soft sculpture to miniature canvases to artists’ books. (Browse Art-O-Mat artists here.) Though unquestionably healthier than cigarettes, the diminutive treasures have been known to cause addiction. Whittington admits it’s no accident.

“A friend of mine that I used to work with had a Pavlovian reaction to snack wrappers,” he says with a Southern drawl. “He would go to a vending machine every time he heard the crinkle of cellophane.”

Aiming to channel similarly obsessive behavior toward the purchase of affordable art, the artist hit on the concept just as cigarette machines were increasingly being outlawed. By offering a whimsical, low-cost entrée to collecting, Whittington hopes to combat visual art’s reputation as an elitist pursuit with high barriers to comprehension. Part of the appeal of buying an Art-O-Mat piece, is that “it’s not a huge deal,” he says.

Saturday’s talk will include a Q&A session for artists about how to submit work for inclusion in Art-O-Mat machines. With the exception of wildly inappropriate concepts, Whittington says, submissions are typically accepted. For most artists, he cautions, partnering with Art-O-Mat won’t result in a monetary windfall or a solo show in New York. (Though, in fact, one Art-O-Mat artist did snag a solo show in New York as a result of her participation.) Using Art-O-Mat to promote your artwork isn’t for everyone, he says.

Neither is owning one of the machines, though one private collector has opted in. For those who prefer to buy--rather than lease--an Art-O-Mat, it is possible to purchase a lifetime supply of art objects and maintenance.

That level of commitment is perfectly fine with Whittington.

“I’m planning to see the project through for the rest of my days,” he says.

IF YOU GO: Whittington’s talk takes place on Saturday, June 27, 10:30 a.m., at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland. Admission to the museum is free on Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. until noon, and there is no additional cost to attend the talk.

Megan Voeller is Creative Loafing’s visual art critic. She teaches at the University of Tampa and blogs at

Image courtesy Polk Museum of Art

This weekend, the Polk Museum of Art celebrates the debut of its recently acquired Art-O-Mat with an interactive talk by Art-O-Mat founder and creator Clark Whittington.

Whittington, a conceptual artist based in Winston-Salem, NC, first hatched the Art-O-Mat idea for an exhibition in 1997, when he transformed a dilapidated cigarette machine into a retro-fabulous contraption to dispense his own small-scale works of art. When the show was over, the hosting venue—Mary’s Of Course Café in Winston-Salem—requested that the machine stick around. Whittington obliged, inviting other artists to refill it with cigarette pack-sized works.

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