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Hey, can I bum an artwork off of you?

Old cigarette vending machines are being reconfigured to sell paintings and more.

September 15, 2006|Julia Feldmeier | Washington Post

In the age of public smoking bans, the humble cigarette vending machine seems to have all but outlived its usefulness.

Pity not.

With an organization called Art-o-Mat (, neglected machines are rescued -- and rejiggered to dispense contemporary art.

Works are original and come in packages roughly the size of a cigarette box -- perhaps a pair of earrings, neatly boxed, or a glass ornament, or a 2-by-3-inch watercolor. Artworks that, one might say, are a breath of fresh air. (The surgeon general would be proud.)

Since Art-o-Mat began in 1997, 86 machines have been placed throughout the country, including one at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and at a Whole Foods grocery store in Washington.

The machine in Washington will be stocked with works by local Whole Foods employees, many of whom moonlight as artists. Pieces cost $5 each, a sum that is divided among the artist, Art-o-Mat and Whole Foods, which donates its portion to a local nonprofit group.

"If you think of all the time I put into these blocks, the money is not worth it," says Emily Johnston, an employee at a Gaithersburg, Md., grocery, who is painting miniature still lifes of fruits and vegetables for the machine. "I'm doing it for advertising purposes -- I want people to see my work and be curious about it."

For shoppers, it's also about the thrill of discovery: Placards describe the contents, but you can't be entirely certain what your artwork will look like until you pony up the cash.

It's "a more cultured approach to a vending machine," says Matt Hand, an employee at the Washington store who is making woodblock prints to sell. "It's going to be fun."

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