Two new Mancos vending machines dispense visual artwork, not snacks

by Nick Gonzales

Vending machines are a pretty cool concept: You look inside, find what you want, feed some money in, press some buttons, and voila – you’ve got what you wanted. And they’re good for more than just candy, chips and soda.

In Japan, you can get everything from bananas to beer to live crabs (and all sorts of other stuff if the internet is to be believed *shudders*) in a machine. In Singapore, you can buy paperback books from them. In fact, the first known vending machine dates back to ancient Egypt, where a mathematician created one to dispense holy water in return for a bronze coin.

Now, you can find two machines in Mancos that sell art. And not in the sense of “Oh, this Butterfinger is a work of art.” The machines, set up at Fahrenheit Coffee and Fenceline Cider, will vend actual visual art.

Selling art out of a vending machine, surprisingly, isn’t the newest idea. An artist named Clark Whittington created the first “art-o-mat” out of a retired cigarette vending machine for an art show in 1997 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The idea sort of caught on, and now there are at least 100 machines around the world, including six in Las Vegas.

That is where Mancos artist Alex Bond got the idea, he told KSUT. When a Durango art gallery declined to show his work, he felt defeated and started looking for other ways to display his art and that of other artists to the public. He then saw the machines in Vegas and knew they could work in Mancos. Unlike most art-o-mats, though, the two retired machines he retrieved from Flagstaff, Arizona, are snack machines, not cigarette machines. Nevertheless, the idea should work.

It’s certainly an interesting idea during the coronavirus epidemic, when it’s harder to count on a traditional art gallery being open, such as the Artisans of Mancos gallery, to which Bond belongs.

Bond told The Journal that the machines operate similarly to the Artisans of Mancos cooperative model: Artists can pay $3 or $5 for a small or large spiral, respectively, to be filled up with their artwork. The artists can then set their own prices, starting at 10 cents. The machines don’t take credit cards yet, but they will if the Mancos Creative District can raise enough funds.

When we stopped by the machines in early July, they were both about a fifth full. We would have tried them out, but we showed up with only $5 in cash and everything available was more expensive than that.

After a lifetime of dealing with vending machine issues like snacks getting stuck in their spiral or trapped against the glass, or machines simply eating our money, we’re a bit wary of feeding, like, $35 into one of them. But we’ll give the machines the benefit of the doubt.

The machines are, at the very least, a cool, artistic addition to a small town already steeped in art. And Bond says he wants to bring the idea to other towns around the area, including Cortez and Dolores. If he does, it will be a neat, if impersonal, way to bridge the gap between artist and collector.

Nick Gonzales

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