Stashed in the lobby of Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel (139 E. Kilbourn Ave.) is a rehabbed cigarette machine known as the Art-o-mat. The vintage appliance is fully operational, except instead of vending smokes, it’s stocked with miniature artworks.
“People love it,” curator Samantha Timm says. “Their faces light up and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, have you seen this?’”
Five bucks lets you choose from paintings on blocks of wood, delicate ceramics and even wearables like pins and earrings. Just feed in your fiver, pull the old-fashioned knob, and your compact art piece is delivered with a satisfying “kaplunk.”
“It’s part of the whole Saint Kate experience,” Timm says. “It extends our goal of making art accessible to everybody, and it’s one of those really thoughtful details that make the whole thing a surprise and delight.”
The machines were first designed in 1997 by artist Clark Whittington. He fixed up an old cigarette machine, which had recently been banned by his home state of North Carolina, and inserted 12 of his paintings fixed to cigarette-pack-sized blocks, selling them at $1 a pop.
The idea was so well received that now there are more than 100 of these machines around the world, all dispensing miniatures from artists. Beyond Saint Kate, there are two more Art-o-mats in Wisconsin, one in Sheboygan and one in Wales.
“Art-o-mat bridges experiences between a transaction and a commercial experience with an artist,” Timm says.
She’s hoping to collaborate with the Art-o-mat company to find ways to promote local artists at the Milwaukee machine, but anyone can submit art for consideration at artomat.org.