SUGAR HILL — Tucked inside the E Center’s level one entrance foyer next to Central City Tavern sits a refurbished old cigarette vending machine. But instead of dispensing packs of smokes, the shiny red and white metal beast emblazoned with “Art-o-mat” in a retro-style font offers an array of custom artwork for sale.
For $5 (the machine only accepts cash in $1s and $5s) visitors can choose one from a selection of 20 original works created by artists from across the country. Hundreds of Art-o-mat machines are currently installed in restaurants, bars and art galleries from Seattle to Key West, (the Smithsonian and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts each have one) with some located as far away as Australia. The Sugar Hill Art-o-mat is only one of two in Georgia. The other machine is located in the Omni Hotel at The Battery at SunTrust Park in Marietta.
Brought to the city thanks to the efforts of the Sugar Hill Arts Commission, the vending machine is advertised as “guilt-free vending.” In advance of the new art gallery in the Broadstone development across from City Hall, the Commission decided earlier this year that encouraging the public to collect art and providing affordable art options would be beneficial to local culture. The Commission worked with Artists in Cellophane, the sponsoring organization of Art-o-mat, to bring the machine to the E Center.
“Ultimately, the Commission hopes that local artists will apply to the program and could be featured in the machine,” said spokesperson Nicole Klein. “Personally, I have already purchased several pieces as gifts and stocking stuffers. There is currently some seasonal artwork in the machine.”
The guidelines for artwork are strict, according to the Art-o-mat website (artomat.org), as all pieces must meet specific size and material requirements in order to dispense properly. In effect, all art must fit within a cardboard box or painted on a woodblock the size of a cigarette pack. Artists are encouraged to submit prototypes for consideration.
The first appearance of an Art-o-mat came in June 1997 when artist Clark Whittington had a solo show at a local cafe, Penny University in Winston-Salem, NC. He used an old cigarette machine which, along with 12 of his paintings, he used to sell his black and white photographs mounted on wood blocks for $1 each.
The show was scheduled to be dismantled in July 1997. However, the cafe owner loved the machine and asked that it remain permanently. At that point, other artists were needed if the project was going to continue, so Clark and a handful of local artists formed Artists in Cellophane.
The machine remained unaltered in its original location until 2010.
As for Sugar Hill’s machine? “The Art-o-mat will remain in the city,” Klein said, “as long as interest remains — meaning that it will hopefully be a permanent fixture.”
— By Jim Simpson