Anticipation: Heart of Art-O-Mat

Did you know that the hottest toy rolling off shelves this holiday season is a plastic dome-shaped case filled with 50 surprises, including dolls and their accessories? The $69.99, MGA Entertainment “L.O.L. Surprise! Big Surprise” ball is quickly becoming the hardest to find gift of the year. 

This would have made little sense to me a few short weeks ago. However, thanks to the Salina Art Center’s Art-O-Mat, I think I get it!

For those who haven’t heard of our Art-O-Mat, I’ll give a little background. The creations of artist Clark Whittington, these vintage cigarette vending machines are repurposed to sell original contemporary art for only $5 per piece. The mission of the Art-O-Mat project is to encourage art consumption by expanding access to artists’ work.

The restored machines themselves are visually engaging. There are over 100 active machines in various locations throughout the country involving approximately 400 contributing artists from ten different countries.

By purchasing a $5 token at the Art Center, anyone can begin collecting original contemporary art. These tiny artworks are sweeping the country. A summer long exhibition at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, NC, shared hundreds of mini art pieces, including limited edition multiples and several machines, as part of a twenty-year retrospective of Art-O-Mat®.

Part of the fun is not knowing exactly what your art piece will look like since each piece is an original work. The price, size, and collect-ability create a venue for everyone to become an art collector. 

Let me paint a picture of what I observed on Nov. 3, 2017 when we unveiled ourArt-O-Mat machine.

Picture the vintage machine standing proudly in the window. Ten knobs tempting the most patient of patrons to give a tug. Ten artist name plates tucked safely behind the glass revealing very little about the contents of each non-descript cigarette sized box stacked behind.

“What kind of art is in the machine?” people kept asking. 

Finally, we drew the name of the person who would become the first ever SalinaArt-O-Mat knob puller. Everyone looked on as she was handed a golden Art-O-Mat token. No bigger than a quarter, this small token commanded the attention of the entire room.

She walked to the machine and diligently began studying each of her ten options; each of the ten name plates and each of the ten stacks of non-descript boxes. 

What would she pick?

Finally a look of confidence radiated from her face as she raised her hand and dropped the token into the slot and out of sight. The metal slide and clink seemed to be in unison to the inhaled breath of onlookers. Eager faces surrounded her. We were all crowed in to see what was happening. Then she pulled the knob! Anticipation was electric and no one moved as we waited to hear the small box drop into the tray. She gently picked it up, and we all leaned in as she carefully unwrapped the amazing palm sized treasure. What was it?

I don’t think it really mattered. But what happened next was everyone clamoring to buy their token and take their chance on the machine. The entire process started over and over as each new person pulled a knob. The growing sense of exhilaration and anticipation to see each new treasure hypnotized the entire group into a single shared human experience. 

We live in an age where we know almost everything in an instant. We can easily forget the exhilarating human emotion of anticipation. Anticipation is spicy and intense. It makes us feel alive. It’s the primary reason for sitting on a bar stool pulling the lever of a one arm bandit waiting for triple cherries or for children wanting a ball filled with the unknown for Christmas.

We crave surprise and can become intoxicated on anticipation. It’s a great feeling. It’s also a shared human experience. If we can create art collectors by exposing them to the toxicity of anticipation, I’m all for it! 

So what was in the machine? You will have to come down to the Salina Art Center and find out for yourself. I guarantee you will have fun and it is next to impossible to experience Art-O-Mat without smiling.