Art-o-Mat: degrading art or promoting success?

*Watch this video featuring Art-o-Mat creator Clark Whittington as he explains the genesis of his “art for the masses.”

By Lanie Rivera

The Smithsonian’s Art-o-Mat vending machine was installed in 2010, but this recent article by San Jose Mercury News (SJMN) shows that D.C. was ahead of the curve — institutions across the country are now tagging along, using the refurbished cigarette machines to dispense small art pieces for just $5 (check out their over 100 of the nationwide locations here).

Amid a time when art organizations are financially suffering, it makes sense that organizations have embraced fun technologies like the Art-o-Mat to attract customers.

Some art enthusiasts haven’t welcomed this trend — they claim the vending machines undermine the quality of art. But it’s not like these cigarette dispensers give out little snippets of Van Gogh’s work. Despite criticism from naysayers, the Art-o-Mat allows both artists and consumers to easily market and collect art, taking art from one home and bringing it straight into another.

While some artists are amateur, others, noted Art-o-Mat creator Clark Whittington in response to this post, have been practicing their craft for years but they want to contribute to Art-o-Mat’s cause:

“We have professional photographers, painters, sculptors, etc. who make a living from their art. They are involved because they believe in the original concept of Art-o-Mat … getting art into people’s hands and making it part of their lives.”

And the machines are more than just a short-term project, according to Whittington in the SJMN article:

“Art should reach out to the public … Some people think this is a fad, something with a short shelf life, but it’s not.”

Photo by Karl Mondon

Photo by Karl Mondon

SJMN offers other methods art organizations have used to integrate their work with technology. These modern advancements, including museums with smart-phone apps and pre-theater commercials “fly in the face of artistic convention.” And critics have also claimed that Art-o-Mat is the art world’s way of upping their “hipness” to attract a larger audience, according to SJMN.

But artists, amateur and seasoned, have praised the machines for providing entrepreneurial opportunities, and consumers are enthusiastic for the opportunity to engage with art in an innovative way.

Art-o-Mat artist Dean Konop commented on the Smithsonian’s blog post about their art vending machine with enthusiasm and gratitude for the opportunity this machine provides for him:

I am an artist [who has been] part of the Art*O*Mat group (Artist in Cellophane) since 2004. I have created over 650 pieces for AIC and Art*O*Mat and I find the whole experience liberating and enjoyable. To work on a project and then have them dispersed to places I have never been to is exhilarating … Plus I get my name out as an artist through this whole endeavor.

While some outright oppose the new technologies, others are simply worried that inventions like these are a sign of an arts industry crisis.

Kathryn Jones, CEO of VisualArtsTV, a company that creates innovative ways for the community to engage with art, said that the art world is desperate to attract more viewers, reported by SJMN’s recent article:

“Our industry is facing a severe sustainability crisis … If speaking to today’s audiences via the technology they are already using will help to build more demand for the performing arts then I think we are doing the industry a terrible disservice by refusing to try.”

With this in mind, the question is: does technology really degrade the quality of art?

Some art connoisseurs have argued that ploys like the vending machines are disrespectful to both artists and their work, but others know the art world has to adapt to the changing times:

While purists bemoan the cheapening of the aesthetic experience, others say it’s a sign of times: The arts, like most sectors of the economy, must evolve or die.

And evolving it is. These antique “carcinogen delivery systems” have been repurposed by North Carolinian artist Clark Whittington. They are art themselves.

And the Art-o-Mat machines are undeniably gaining attention from the art world.

The Smithsonian’s blog post reported that consumers immediately took advantage of the opportunity to collect these eccentric pieces of art.

Within the first 12 days of the machine’s installation at the American Art Museum, visitors averaged 16 art pieces dispensed per day.

Not to mention, everyone can participate. It seems like a win-win. Whittington told the SJMN that his art is meant to, at its heart, serve the public:

“This way anyone can be an art collector … It’s as democratic as you get.”

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

[WC: 826]

*This post was corrected in response to a comment by the Art-o-Mat creator. He clarified that all of the Art-o-Mat artists are not amateur; many have been practicing their craft and selling their work for years.

Congressional Art Competition winner’s work to be displayed in U.S. Capital

Photo by Lanie Rivera

Photo by Lanie Rivera

The Congressional Art Competition is currently taking place across the United States and will last until the end of April.

Each spring high school students nationwide are encouraged to submit artistic pieces of work to their local representatives, whereupon they will be entered into a national competition. The national winning piece will be selected after entries had been submitted and the winner’s work will be displayed in the U.S. Capital building for a year.

The winner will also receive two airplane tickets to fly out to D.C. in June to attend the award ceremony, as well as a $3,000 artistic scholarship for college, The MetroWest Daily News reported.

Each representative sets his or her own due dates and guidelines. Forms, information and previous winners can be found here.

Relative importance of community-based art projects climb


Photo by Art Matters, on Easy City Art

By Nicole Lafond


Two University of Vermont students recently curated a community art project on the school’s campus, encouraging student and faculty members to express what makes them feel “Alive.”

The two Davis Center curators and juniors at the University of Vermont were inspired by a recent gallery at the Penny Cluse restaurant, and decided to bring the idea to their campus, the Vermont Cynic reported. The exhibition is currently being featured in the Dudley H. Davis Center on campus.

The Dudley H. Davis Center is a community center on the university’s campus. It claims to be student focused, complements the university’s academic mission, supports social justice and is environmentally conscious, according to the center’s website.

Maya Curtis and Blair Borax were the brains behind this community art project. The two-student team arranged the specifics of the exhibit and held an opening reception on March 20. The exhibit opened March 19 and will last until April 12, according to the University of Vermont’s arts calendar.

Community member participants were given few instructions for this exhibit. They were given an eight by eight piece of plywood, asked to express their notions of the word “alive” and then return the finished product to be displayed in the exhibit.

The exhibit’s inspiration, “Run” featured at Penny Cluse, functioned similarly to “Alive,” but Curtis and Borax told the Cynic they hoped to make their exhibit more community focused.

“It is definitely important to value fine art, but I think it’s equally important to level with a public who aren’t all art critics, to makes this space inclusive.”

A vast array of skill levels and artistic mediums was the goal of the exhibit, according to the student curators. Community artists who have contributed to date utilized products such as markers, glitter and fake flowers, according to the observations of the Cynic reporter.

Borax has worked with the concept of community art before, and said she sees it as an important part of any art gallery’s relations with the public.

“This is not a super fine art thing, but I think it’s important to get the student body involved.  Especially in the Davis Center where their mission is related to social justice and environmental sustainability.”

Despite experience with community-based art projects, Borax was disappointed with the level of engagement she has encountered so far at her university’s art center. Only 15 people had signed up to participate in the “Alive” exhibit, but the pair said they were expecting more to express interest after the opening reception.

The pair also plans to engage in and curate more community art projects in the future.

Community-based art projects are not a new concept in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area. Organizations such as Civilian Art Projects and City Arts exist because of community engagement in artistic exhibits. These community-based art projects could be the future of art programs in D.C. and beyond.

Civilian Art Projects is a gallery located on Seventh Street in the North West that exists solely to help spread the vision of amateur artists. The gallery provides a platform for community members to engage in the art works of local emerging artists while allowing community members a place to explore their own interests and engage in expression.

Similarly, City Art has created a business model based around the importance of community art.

“City Arts also conducts mural and mosaic residencies at Washington, DC area public, private, and charter schools. These projects involve hundreds of students – most of whom do not have formal art training – in the creation of artworks that pay tribute to their schools and surroundings. Through partnerships with local nonprofits, City Arts offers after-school and summer art workshops.”

I argue local community art projects are one of the most productive means of engaging locals in the power and importance of the arts, and may be the answer to art education in the D.C. community and beyond.

Local D.C. school officials have recently made plans to close 15 public schools in the district, the Washington Post reported. Plans to cut art funding to a prominent art organization, Fillmore, have also been recently announced.

These cuts have local parents and community members frustrated with the priority quality education, specifically arts education, has in the local community.

An increase in the number of art, music and foreign language programs was used as a justification for the “consolidation efforts”  of the DCPS, in response to a recent law suit filed by activists hoping to halt the closure of these 15 schools.

School officials should be criticized for the lack of evidence behind this claim made by DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz. The connection independent community art projects have with schools in the district could be the source of DCPS’ claim, making the claim invalid, as these independent organizations do not claim to be active DCPS affiliates, but rather affiliated with student based non-profit organizations.

The importance of community of art projects is more prominent now that community members fear art funding cuts and public school closures, but should not be cited as a justification behind such actions.

The future of the local art industry in D.C. may lie in the hands of community-based projects, such as “Alive.”