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Art-o-Mat weathers the pandemic

Art-o-Mat weathers the pandemic

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Clark Whittington deserves a medal, or some such high honor, for his unique, ongoing contribution to Winston-Salem’s art scene.

Whittington is the founder and “chief operator” of Art-o-mat, which oversees the creative re-purposing of decommissioned cigarette vending machines to dispense compact pieces of art. The machines are leased to museums and other public venues across the country, allowing patrons to buy original artworks for only $5 each.

It’s a clever concept that Whittington has spent the past 23 years pursuing for all it’s worth, resulting in one of this city’s most brilliantly quirky artistic success stories.

Whittington commissions artists to redecorate the machines, then he stocks them with cigarette-pack-sized artworks, or pieces that will fit in cardboard packages of that size. Because they’re wrapped in cellophane like 20-count cigarette packs, Whittington early on dubbed his network of suppliers “Artists in Cellophane.”

Art-o-mat leases its stocked machines to venues for a one-time hosting fee, allowing each venue to order replacement artworks as needed. Just as a smoker would buy a pack of cigarettes from the same machine in its original form, a patron inserts money and pulls a corresponding knob to select and buy an original piece of art. The artist receives half of the sale price ($2.50). The host venue receives $1.50 from each sale, and Art-o-mat takes a $1 commission (20%).

Winston-Salem has so many Art-o-mat machines - about 20 at present - that almost everyone who lives here is familiar with them. But they’re scattered far and wide, from Alaska to Hawaii, and from Australia to Austria.

Of about 300 artists whose work can be found in those machines at any given time, a substantial number of them live in Winston-Salem, where Whittington has lived since 1996. In that respect, Art-o-mat plays an important role in promoting local artists to a broad, international audience.

Art-o mat currently represents 25 local artists, but a few hundred others have participated over the two decades since Whittington founded the business.

At the beginning of 2020 there were about 175 Art-o-mats in venues worldwide, and the business was on track to sell about 80,000 individual pieces - average for annual sales in recent years, according to Whittington.

Like the vast majority of small business people in this country, Whittington has had to scale back his expectations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken a big toll on his business. In mid-March Art-o-Mat’s host venues began shutting down, and soon afterwards they stopped ordering new pieces to re-stock their machines.

Before the pandemic, Whittington said, 40 to 50 host venues typically ordered new artworks for their machines every month. This works out to between 50 and 400 individual pieces, depending on the size of the venue, he said.

That number was down to 24 in March, when the pandemic shutdown began, and there was only one order in April, he said: “We’ve lost about eight host venues due to the pandemic.”

The situation improved slightly during the summer, Whittington said, but about one-fourth of Art-o-Mat’s venues are museums and arts centers that remain closed. Most of the venues that have reopened and resumed ordering new pieces for their machines are breweries and sole-proprietorship galleries, he said.

Art-o-mat machines can also be found in libraries, hotels, arts-council offices, restaurants, coffeehouses, movie theaters and other businesses. Whittington said he expects most of the machines will remain inactive until next spring.

Whittington has always maintained a low overhead, and the policy has served him well during the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to himself he employs one other full-time employee and two freelancers who work on a per-project basis. Most of their work takes place in the basement of Whittington’s home in northwest Winston-Salem, but he also leases a downtown space at Delurk Gallery as a public studio for displaying Art-o-mat machines and related materials.

Art-o-Mat didn’t apply for federal assistance to help its recovery from the shutdown. So far, Whittington said, the business has been able to survive without laying anyone off. Employee hours were reduced as the business shifted its focus almost exclusively to its online offerings.

“Luckily we had launched our new Art-o-carton in late February,” Whittington said.

The Art-o-carton is a personalized collection of 10 Art-o-mat pieces that can be ordered online for $55. About 200 of these customized collections had been sold as of last week, Whittington said. For more information visit https://artomat.bigcartel.com/product/art-o-carton.

“That new offering and our low overhead is the reason we’re still here,” he said.

As a result of the dramatic decline in orders from host venues Whittington has an unprecedented backlog of Art-o-mat works stored in his basement studio. But he doesn’t want to discourage artists from continuing to keep him supplied.

“We’re stocked up, but we still need art,” he said.

Elaborating on that apparent dichotomy, Whittington said that Artist-in-Cellophane includes artists at various levels of their careers.

“Our host venues are very selective about ordering new works for their machines, and my goal is to never let a buyer down,” he said. “The really good stuff goes really quick. Some of the pieces in these machines would easily go for 20 or 30 dollars if they were being sold anywhere else but in an Art-o-Mat. So we always need really good art by people who are doing it for the right reasons - not as a sort of sideline.”

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