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A retro cigarette vending machine is now a $5 art dispenser

Posted at 8:37 AM, Feb 20, 2023

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. (TMJ4) — TheArt-o-mat is a retired cigarette vending machine that dispenses art. For just $5, people can get a print, painting, jewelry, statue, and so much more.

"It is so much more than a vending machine. It’s an art experience, but it’s also an art object in and of itself," Samantha Timm, the curator at Saint Kate The Arts Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said.

Since Saint Kate opened in 2019, the Art-o-mat has been a huge hit.

“We sold almost 10,000 pieces, so it just gives you an idea that people are excited about it and they want to participate," Timm said.

The first Art-o-matt was built by Clark Whittington in 1997. He refurbished an old cigarette vending machine after it became more or less illegal. He displayed it at an art exhibition, and it became a huge hit. Now, he leases them out to galleries, libraries, and hotels.

It's not cheap to have one. It can cost $5,000 per year. Plus, it costs $2.50 plus shipping to stock the machine. However, it's not about making a ton of money. These exhibits are designed to be a fun way to interact with art and the past. Furthermore, it makes art collecting accessible for buyers. All the art inside the machines is made by different artists from around the world.

Art-o-Mat
Some of the available art from the Art-o-Mat at Saint Kate's The Art Hotel.

“It’s so unique. It’s so different. I’ve never seen anything like this," Kami Strunsee, an artist and owner of Timber Lane Studio and Gallery in Wales said.

Strunsee also has an Art-o-mat in her gallery. She estimates more than 500 pieces of cigarette box-sized art has been purchased since she opened in April 2022. Strunsee also discovered that there is an entire community of people who collect pieces of art from these vending machines.

“I have several people from California come in. They came to Wisconsin, and they just drove east, and were trying to hit as many Art-o-mats as they could," she said.

Strunsee has even hosted Art-o-mat nights. People come in with their friends, buy a few pieces of art, and then sit around a table looking at each other's collectibles and making trades with each other just like one would with basketball or Pokemon cards.

Art-o-Mat Gnome
A mix of a print and painting of a gnome from the Art-o-Mat at Timber Lane Studio and Gallery.

"It's kind of random as to what you get but it's always something really unique," she said.

This story was originally reported by James Groh on tmj4.com.