Art be mine: Art-o-mat machine vends art at an affordable price

This is how an Art-o-mat machine works. (Sheryl Jean)

Looking for a fun gift for your sweetie that no one else will have and doesn’t cost too much?

Art. I’m not kidding.

I just fell in love with a vending machine that sells mini pieces of original art — at $5 a pop.

On a recent visit to Minneapolis, I spied a beautifully restored cigarette machine (see photo at top) in the lobby of Le Meridien Chambers hotel. After closer inspection and a few questions to the hotel staff, I learned that it spits out little packages of art instead of packs of smokes.

What a great idea!

The credit goes to Art-o-mat, a North Carolina artist collective whose mission is to encourage art consumption in an innovative and approachable way. You can use a map on Art-o-mat’s website to see if you’re near one of the more than 100 vending machines across North America.

While the art would make perfect Valentine’s Day gifts, half of the fun is in working the machine, which mixes the thrill of an arcade game with an element of surprise.

This small sculpture by artist Sandy Wilcox comes with directions for assembly. (Sheryl Jean)

The Art-o-mat machine at Le Meridien offers 20 pieces of art. In place of a display of cigarette brands are images of the artwork with a sliver of writing so you can just make out whether it’s a necklace, mini sculpture or something else.

You exchange money for a token at the hotel front desk. Slide the token into a slot at the top of the machine, pull the knob for your selection and — Shazam! — a small package slides out the bottom (image at top right).

New artwork is delivered once a month to restock the machine. The art comes in a cardboard box or is painted or mounted on a block. Each item is about the size of, well, a cigarette pack (roughly 3″ X 2″ X 1″).

Two painted blocks by two different artists. (Sheryl Jean)

For research purposes, I bought a handful of art: a small sculpture (image at upper right), two paintings on blocks (image at right), a mixed-media fortune cookie (image at lower right) and a painted piece of driftwood (see image at end). I purposefully did not select any jewelry, but there were a few choices.

It felt like Christmas over and over again.

I thought most of the art was quite well done, and I was happy with the variety and condition of the work. Each item is wrapped in cellophane for protection.

Did I like the art? That’s a different question. Art is subjective: Everyone who looks at a piece of art can have a different opinion about it. I have an appreciation for art even if it’s not my style.

This creation of mixed media and found objects is by Millicent Jones. (Sheryl Jean)

Some of the artists include their website, email address if you want to find out more about them or contact them. I learned that Pollux, the painter of “The Trumpeter” (image at right) is based in Los Angeles and Nicole Gagner, the Bismarck, N.D. painter of driftwood, also sells her creations (image at bottom) on

I’m not the only one who’s enamored of these little bundles of joy.

Hotel clerk, Thomas Rainiere, said the Art-o-mat machine is popular with guests and locals. He told me one man comes in every Sunday to buy a piece of art to add to a wall covered by such mini artwork at his home.

Artist Nicole Gagner paints sky scenes on driftwood. (Sheryl Jean)

Here’s the story behind the Art-o-mat idea: In 1997, artist Clark Whittington was preparing for a show at a local cafe in Winston-Salem, N.C. Alongside his paintings, he installed a cigarette machine — the first Art-o-mat — to sell his black and white photographs mounted on blocks for $1 apiece. He formed Artists in Cellophane to expand the idea.

In addition to being a thrill for buyers, Art-o-mat gives artists a wider canvas for their work. About 400 artists from 10 countries create work for Art-o-mat machines.

The Art-o-mat at Le Meridien Chambers offers 20 art choices, but the number of options differs depending on the type and size of machine.

The Minneapolis hotel has had its machine for a decade. It’s in keeping with the hotel’s art theme: One of its original owners, a local real estate magnate Ralph Burnet is a well-known art collector.

I plan to give most of my Art-o-mat art as gifts.

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