Editor’s note: This article has been updated since its publication to clarify the legality of cigarette vending machines.
Years back, cigarette vending machines were a fixture in the corridors of certain bars and restaurants, a midcentury convenience allowing smokers to re-up with onsite ease. A few coins in the slot and a jerk of the knob released the machine’s treasure with an audible plunk, a Pavlovian sound that, unhealthy as it was, triggered sweet relief.
Such machines are rare nowadays, but the magical plunk of any vending device still holds charm, believes the Art-o-Mat movement, which converts decommissioned cigarette machines into purveyors of tiny, original art.
There are nearly 180 refurbished Art-o-Mats across the country, including one at the Baton Rouge Gallery. For a mere fiver, you can buy a token, drop it in and pull a knob. Out plops a diminutive piece of art, a small box holding handmade jewelry, or a small craft.
“It’s just really fun,” says Baton Rouge Gallery board member Debbie Daniel, who has a personal collection of about 100 Art-o-Mat pieces—all from Baton Rouge Gallery’s machine. Many line the windowsills of her home. “You’re getting an original piece of art from artists from all over the United States. I just think it’s so cool.”
Art-o-Mat machines are the brainchild of North Carolina artist Clark Whittington, who created the first one for a solo art show at a local Winston-Salem café in 1997. Whittington saw the project as a clever way to fuse art and commerce, filling it with his photographic work mounted on small rectangular blocks. Spectators could buy them for a dollar.
The café owner liked the machine so much she wanted it to stay permanently, prompting the formation of a collective of artists who continued to stock it long-term with their work. It sparked a movement to produce more Art-o-Mat machines, which have since been acquired by arts organizations, museums and private businesses nationwide.
The Baton Rouge Gallery installed its first in 2013, a popular piece positioned near the restrooms that was a dead ringer for a functioning cigarette machine, bedecked in brown burlwood and ’70s flair.
Daniel recently suggested the gallery trade its original Art-o-Mat for one customized to reflect BRG’s lively brand. The new machine, made by Whittington and his team, is lacquered in automotive paint in the gallery’s signature shades of blue, magenta, yellow and black (the same found in a four-color printer). It was unveiled in July 2021.
“We wanted ours to be beautiful, and it is,” Daniel says. “It’s all glammed up.”
The machine is stocked with work from nationwide artists, including some from Louisiana, who are part of the Art-o-Mat partner group Artists in Cellophane (AIC). When supplies get low, the gallery restocks the machine by ordering more work from AIC.
“We have people who come in just for this,” says Baton Rouge Gallery President and CEO Jason Andreasen. “We had a family come by this summer who was going from Michigan to New Orleans, specifically making stops at Art-o-Mats, and they came in to experience ours.” batonrougegallery.org