MICA vending machine aims to bring fine art to masses

A restored vintage cigarette machine that has been turned into an Art-o-mat, dispensing $5 cigarette-pack sized works of art in the Fox building at MICA. The sponsoring group, A.I. C. (Artists in Cellophane) repackages art to make it part of our daily lives.
A restored vintage cigarette machine that has been turned into an Art-o-mat, dispensing $5 cigarette-pack sized works of art in the Fox building at MICA. The sponsoring group, A.I. C. (Artists in Cellophane) repackages art to make it part of our daily lives.(Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

You usually head for a vending machine when you're craving a bag of chips or can of soda.

But there's a one machine in Baltimore that dispenses objects such as a "Hankie Pankie," a heart-shaped engagement ring, a mini-Zombie or, for those in need of quick religious reassurance, a "Pocket Nun."

That's just some of the fare available — with a few crisp dollar bills — from the "Art-o-mat," part of a national project designed to bring fine art to the masses, using the most lowbrow of mediums.

"You're bringing art to people who usually can't afford it," said Genny Cox, a MICA graduate student who made "Pop the Question" engagement rings to sell from the vending machine. "It's unique but it's attainable, which is exactly the point."

The Maryland Institute College of Art this year became the first art school in the country to market handmade art on campus from a converted cigarette vending machine, located in the Fox Building, just down from the Utz potato chips.

Faculty members say the project is a good way to provide exposure for young artists, while teaching them about the business side of the art world. Students say it can help them earn money and get feedback from paying customers. They say there's a sense of kitsch and retro-whimsy about the project that makes it approachable, even for art-resistant Baltimoreans.

"In Baltimore, it seems that nuns and Elvises and hons rule," said Mary Lee, a MICA graduate student whose first batch of Pocket Nuns sold out quickly. Kitsch and whimsy are "part of what people embrace in Baltimore. It's part of the allure of it."

Besides literally getting art in the hands of people who might otherwise not own any, the project has a valuable educational component, Cox said.

"So many students go to art schools and end up working as waiters and waitresses," she said. Creating art for a vending machine "forces you to figure out how to make a living doing your artwork. It really gets you thinking about the connection between art and commerce."

For any artist, "it's a venue to get your art out there," notes Herb Hoover, one of Art-o-mat's best-selling artists. "The worst thing [artists] can do is stay in their garret."

The Art-o-mat is the brainchild of Clark Whittington, a North Carolina-based conceptual artist. After old-style cigarette vending machines were outlawed in tobacco-rich North Carolina, he said, plenty of them were sitting idle and waiting for new uses. He turned one into an art dispenser, featuring his own black and white photographs in place of Marlboros and Virginia Slims and sold the prints for $1 apiece.

The idea was such a hit that cafe owner Cynthia Giles asked him to keep the machine in place after the exhibit came down. She also introduced him to more artists who could help fill the narrow slots where the cigarettes used to be.

Whittington trademarked the concept and created an organization, Artists In Cellophane, to place Art-o-mats around the country. Its mission is "to encourage art consumption by combining the words of art and commerce in an innovative form."

Today he has about 100 Art-o-mats in the U. S., Austria, Canada and Australia, with more installations in the works. The art sells for $5 and works can be no larger than a pack of cigarettes. At any given time, Whittington has 300 to 400 artists who produce the art.

Some Art-o-mats are in prestigious locations such as the Whitney Museum in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington. Others have been placed in cafes, movie theaters, hospitals, even Whole Foods grocery stores. MICA's is the second in Maryland, after an installation for the Allegany Arts Council in Cumberland. From each $5 sale, the artist keeps $2.50, the host location keeps $1.50 and $1 goes to Whittington's organization for maintenance and other expenses.

Whittington said he has two basic rules for artists: What they sell "has to be worth $5 to buyers" and "has to be safe," meaning it can't be made of broken glass. balloons or other potentially dangerous materials. In addition, "the last thing I want is for it to be cheesy or tacky," he said.

Whittington said he has wanted to install an Art-o-mat in Baltimore for years and was happy to reach agreement with MICA, whose Art-o-mat was installed in January. He said he has Art-o-mats on some other campuses, including a few with art departments, but none at any other colleges of art.

MICA and Whittington were brought together by Jodi Hoover, who works as a librarian at the college and has also been an Art-o-mat artist for years. Hoover said she heard that MICA was launching a new graduate-level program called the Business of Art & Design and thought it would be a good fit for Art-o-mat.

Heather Bradbury, manager of MICA's Master of Professional Studies Programs in the School for Professional and Continuing Studies, said administrators were enthusiastic about Hoover's suggestion. The difference between most Art-o-mats and the one in Baltimore, Bradbury said, is that MICA has incorporated the vending machine project into its curriculum and given students a chance to create merchandise that can be sold from the machine. MICA also wanted to make sure than any art sold in its Art-o-mat would be handmade to some degree, rather than machine made, and that any money made by the college would go back to the college, she said.

Bradbury explained that graduate students in the Business of Art and Design program were assigned to prepare a prototype work of art that could be sold in the vending machine, for $5. They also had to design and fabricate packaging for their creations. If they wanted to continue, she said, they could work with Whittington to create actual items for sale, starting with an order of 50.

The exercise was intended both to raise and answer questions about the business of art, Bradbury said. Among other lessons, it shows that an object "doesn't have to be expensive to be art. It doesn't have to be expensive to be valuable," she said. "It's a good way to start a lot of larger discussions."

Between MICA and Artists in Cellophane, "there is an understanding about the goal of the project, which is to get handmade art into people's hands," she said.

At the same time, there is an element of surprise that comes with buying art from a vending machine, she said. "It a leap of faith in a way. You're talking a chance on art."