Arts + Culture » Visual Art

Soft sell

NSCAD student Chris Foster’s vending machine makes visual art affordable and fun.

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The typical image of an art collector tends to involve a suit, bags of money and a large flashy house to exhibit a collection. But many art enthusiasts, as well as artists, don't have thousands of dollars to spend on a single piece. These days, more and more artists are working to sell art to patrons who lack the finances or interest to make major purchases, through selling art in vending machines for a few dollars or less.

Art-o-mat, based in North Carolina, began in 1997, when an artist picked up a newly outlawed cigarette vending machine and refurbished it to sell his Polaroid photos. The company now operates 82 vending machines across the US. Montreal's Distroboto group has been vending art in refurbished cigarette vending machines since 2001. Eight machines, in cafes and bars around the city, sell zines, miniature sculptures and mini-CDs and DVDs of music and video art, for two dollars. Toronto cultural and commercial space 401 Richmond hosts Vendavision, a machine that dispenses a can of pop and plays a video for a dollar. Even Utah's Mormon Brigham Young University installed an art vending machine on campus this fall.

Chris Foster, a sculpture and photography student at NSCAD, launched a vending machine last week as part of his graduating exhibit at Anna Leonowens Gallery, where it will be on show until April. The project started when Foster found a discarded nut vending machine on the street last summer and tried to convert it to dispense small plastic capsules filled with tiny works of art. It was impossible to get the original machine working, so he bought a Beaver candy vending machine instead. Foster asked friends and classmates for submissions for the machine and put up posters around NSCAD.

Currently, the machine features works from 15 artists, all NSCAD students,

coming from a variety of disciplines, including sculpture, drawing, jewellery and textiles. Works retail for one dollar. My three purchases resulted in a vegan cheesecake recipe, a tiny drawing of Arnold Schwarzenegger by musician Stacy Lloyd Brown and a silver blob sculpture by sculptor Micah Adams.

Foster is interested in the tension between art and commerce. It's the first time he and many of the contributors have sold work. "A lot of the people participating have trouble selling work or are not so interested in gallery systems," he says. His earnings from the machine will go towards expanding the project, which he would like to take into more non-gallery spaces like cafes and bars.

Local artist Scott Price is an old hand at art vending. In 2004, Price, then a graduate student at NSCAD, exhibited a vending machine at a group show at Anna Leonowens. Price became inspired when he saw a re-used pop machine outside Toronto's Power Plant gallery in the late '90s. He purchased an old sports-card vending machine on eBay and filled the machine with cards printed with his drawings. Each card has a unique combination of drawings selected by a computer program. The machine was marked only by pictures of quarters over each coin slot, but Price found that most people were willing to take a risk for 25 cents. "I like the chance operation of seeing what's going to happen when you put your coin in and get your little disappointing piece of crap," he says.

Aside from the machine, Price has only ever sold one piece and struggles with the commercial aspects of the art world. "I think art, like education and underwear, should be free." He is interested in the egalitarian aspects of the machine and likes to see it reaching people from outside the art community. "If somebody broke into it on the street, I wouldn't be too concerned."

The machine sat in his home for several years following the show, but after moving to a new two-apartment house in September, Price installed it in the shared hallway, where it has earned him $4.25 so far, mostly from his neighbours' visitors, he says.

Prospective art patrons can bring their quarters to 1355 Birmingham Street, lower doorbell.

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