20 Years of Art-o-mat: From Cigarettes to Creations of Art

The town Of Winston-Salem was built on tobacco. A lot of people made a good living (some of them a really great living) from working at RJReynolds but that was when smoking wasn’t a socially punishable crime. Back in the day if you were heading out to the bars or clubs and forgot your smokes, as long as you had a fistful of quarters to stuff in the cigarette machine tucked in the corner, you were in good to go.

Art-o-mat 20th anniversary exhibit at SECCA

The FAB!!! piece of art that I got out of the Art-o-mat!

As the years went by, the price of a pack of smokes kept increasing, and the machines started disappearing because let’s be real – even the most diehard smoker in the bar wasn’t willing to shove that many quarters into a machine – unless they were really, really drunk and had no other option in order to get their fix. Once smoking became illegal in 99.9% of the public places, there was absolutely no need to have the cigarette machines around and they all disappeared.

As the years went by, the price of a pack of smokes kept increasing, and the machines started disappearing because let’s be real – even the most diehard smoker in the bar wasn’t willing to shove that many quarters into a machine – unless they were really, really drunk and had no other option in order to get their fix. Once smoking became illegal in 99.9% of the public places, there was absolutely no need to have the cigarette machines around and they all disappeared.

But there was something almost nostalgic about the simplicity of those machines – the best ones were designed in a time where it was all about the mechanics.. there was absolutely nothing fancy (and in most cases, electronic) about the original machines. Surely there could be another use for them, right? Leave it to a resident artist to think of a way to repurpose those machines but instead of popping out ‘cancer sticks’, now they pop out little treasures of unique art.

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Death to Smoking = the Birth of Art-o-mat

The inspiration for Art-o-mat® came to artist Clark Whittington while observing a friend who had a Pavlovian reaction to the crinkle of cellophane. When the friend heard someone opening a snack, he had the uncontrollable urge to have one too.Art-o-mat 20th anniversary exhibit at SECCA

In June 1997, Clark was set to have a solo art show at a local cafe, Penny Universitie in Winston-Salem, N.C. He used a recently-banned cigarette machine to create the first Art-o-mat®. It was installed along with 12 of his paintings. The machine sold Clark’s black & white photographs mounted on blocks for $1.00 each.

The show was scheduled to be dismantled in July 1997. However, owner Cynthia Giles loved the machine and asked that it stay permanently. At that point, it was clear that involvement of other artists was needed if the project was going to continue. Cynthia introduced Clark to a handful of other local artists and the group Artists in Cellophane (AIC) was formed.

The machine remained unaltered in its original location until 2010.

AIC is the sponsoring organization of Art-o-mat®. The mission of AIC is to encourage art consumption by combining the worlds of art and commerce in an innovative form. AIC believes that art should be progressive, yet personal and approachable. What better way to do this, than with a heavy, cold, steel machine?

20 Years of Art-o-mat at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art

Whittington’s refurbished cigarette machines – dubbed Art-o-mats – have taken on its own cult status with locations around the world. More than 61,000 pieces of art about the size of a cigarette pack were sold in 2016.

To mark its 20th anniversary, SECCA is hosting several events planned during an exhibit from April 20 to Aug. 26 organized by Whittington and SECCA Installation Manager Cliff Dossel and SECCA curator Cora Fisher. The 20 Years of Art-o-mat Retrospective Exhibit includes a media preview on April 18, opening night reception on April 20 and an Art-o-mat Collector’s Swap Meet on June 10. That’s where avid collectors can meet up to exchange art pieces, including many unique and rare pieces.

Whittington began Art-o-mat in the same town where tobacco was once king. Originally conceived as a pop-up art installation, it now features an international network of more than 300 artists creating original pieces of art for the machines.

The machines have been on display at such art institutions as the Smithsonian American Art Museum of Art and the Andy Warhol Museum.

Whittington explains, “ Part of the allure is the thrill of discovery. The placards describe the contents but you don’t discover the art until you hold it in your hand.”

As an ode to its populist roots, Art-o-mat art blocks are priced at just $5 so the art is accessible to

For more information on the Art-o-mat exhibit at SECCA, visit the SECCA site! You can also follow SECCA and Art-o-mat here:

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