Cover Story: Pull This

Cincinnati Gets 1 Degree Cooler With Art Vending Machine

Lucie M. Rice

Folks at ArtWorks will tell you it's all about the size of the package. They would know, having just completed a summer project converting an old cigarette vending machine into a dispenser of works of art the size of a pack of smokes. And in October, the nonprofit job training/public art organization offers its own Art*o*Mat to the public.

First featured in 1997 in Winston-Salem, N.C., at a solo show of founding artist Clark Whittington, the original Art*o*Mat sold his photographs for $1. After the gallery owner asked that the machine stay permanently at the space, the trend caught on, as they say, artomatically.

Seven years later, Cincinnati will become the home of the 72nd machine around the nation and the second one in Ohio (Cleveland's resides at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art).

Tamara Harkavy, ArtWorks' executive director, first learned of the Art*o*Mat last year from Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs Web site. She passed the info along to Program Director Colleen Stanton, who became immediately smitten with the concept and formed a summer apprenticeship program around it.

Like the other ArtWorks summer programs, local teens were selected to work — for money! — with local artists, only on this one their large efforts went into works of mini proportions.

There were no restrictions, except for size, says ArtWorks Art*o*Mat Project Manager Victor Strunk, which could be quite vague for a group of 14- to 18-year-olds with a six-week deadline. The main goal was to produce 500 pieces that were small enough to fit in and through the vending machine.

How does one get 15 teens to develop a concept and crank out the works in six weeks?

"We presented them with an idea, which was knowing everything you're making you're going to sell," Strunk says of his and teaching artists Rich Fruth and Amy Combs' game plan.

And crank out the works they did, somewhere between 750 and 900, depending on whom you ask. The works will sell for $5, barely enough to cover a name-brand cigarette pack these days. Half of the profit goes to the artist, with the rest going to ArtWorks and Whittington for maintenance purposes. Not exactly a get-rich-quick project.

"All the kids completely blew you away," Strunk says of his expectations and the quality of apprentice work — the consensus of the teaching team — noting some of the different concepts the apprentices came up with: jewelry, wigged finger puppets, collages, tiny books, "vacations in a box."

Combs refers to the apprentices as her "coworkers," as they all shared the load.

"Victor had everyone think of our team as an art machine," she says via e-mail. "And for six weeks this mean Art*o*Mat machine was hammering ideas away, melting, boiling, churning and pumping out miniature masterpieces."

Fruth found it comparable to an assembly line, "our own little sweat shop," he says, laughing.

Of the partnership with Whittington and his company, Artists in Cellophane, Stanton says the machines are right in sync with ArtWorks' mission to make art accessible.

"The Art*o*Mat is the perfect extension of what ArtWorks does — reach the community," she says.

The Cincinnati artists' works have already been sent off to Whittington in North Carolina, and he'll put a portion of them into the ArtWorks machine, which he designed, and distribute the rest into Art*o*Mats across the country. Other artists from around the world will be featured in the Cincinnati machine as well. In other words, these teens and ArtWorks are getting national exposure.

"And we're promoting the hell out of ArtWorks in the descriptions that go in the boxes," Harkavy says.

She adds that displaying the machine in their downtown gallery will provide a touch of whimsy, a deviation from their current show.

"The gallery right now has really serious issues in it, really provocative work," she says of Thom Shaw's A Choice of Weapon II. "And this (Art*o*Mat) project reaches the completely different side of the spectrum."

After the Art*o*Mat's time has expired at the ArtWorks gallery, it'll pop up at various spots around town such as libraries, bars and Shake It Records.

As for Whittington, he's just happy to have a machine in Cincinnati. He says he's tried for a couple of years.

His hopes for the Art*o*Mat are simple: "I want it to fill the void in society that's been ignored by the (arts) elitists. I want it to appeal to people who may or may not have bought or sold art before."

For the ArtWorks teachers and apprentices, it's best summed up on the description tags: "ArtWorks is always striving for ways to 'think outside the box,' or in this case the cigarette pack."

ARTWORKS unveils the Art*o*Mat Oct. 1, part of Enjoy the Arts' 20/20 Festival, along with a show and sale of T-shirts made by local artists. The $5 admission gets you an Art*o*Mat token to test out the machine.

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