Art to go: Vancouver’s first art vending machine aims to boost local artists

Need a quick art fix? The art vending machine dispenses zines, buttons, stickers, art prints and other original works by local artists

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An unorthodox vending machine in downtown Vancouver is dispensing more than soda, candy bars and chips.

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Instead, people can get their art fix — to go and contactless — at Vancouver’s first art vending machine, in the Bentall Centre in the heart of the city’s financial district.

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It’s the brainchild of Crystal Lau, founder of non-profit Vancouver Vending Co. She got the idea to stock art in a vending machine last year during the height of the pandemic, when many artists found themselves without the usual outlets to display and sell their work.

Many cities around the world already have art-vending machines, said Lau, who works full-time in community engagement at the University of B.C.

Even with COVID-19 restrictions lifting, Lau said the machines still serve a purpose: “A big part of this project is to make art more accessible for people.”

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Some people might find galleries intimidating and art markets are few and far between, she added. “This is a way to dip your toes in the art scene. This is something rain or shine can be there, and people can visit it.”

The project is also a way to provide a safe and accessible space to promote artists’ work, particularly emerging and BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ artists.

While art vending machines have been popping up in cities in recent years, the concept of an art-gallery-in-a-machine seems to have originated in 1997 in the U.S., where artist Clark Whittington repurposed a cigarette vending machine to sell his black-and-white photographs at his solo show at a cafe in North Carolina.

Some of the art available — at a nice price — in the new art vending machine at the Bentall Centre.
Some of the art available — at a nice price — in the new art vending machine at the Bentall Centre. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

When the show was over, the cafe owner asked that the machine stay permanently. There are currently hundreds of Art-O-Mats in the U.S.

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The idea got a positive response from local artists, said Lau, who put out a call out on Instagram for artists over the summer. She encouraged interested applicants to submit items in their catalogue that would fit the dimensions of a bag of chips or chocolate bar, then narrowed them down to a roster of 14.

Works range in price from a loonie to $60 and include pins by David Camisa, stickers by Lottie Liu, and prints and furoshiki wraps by Anita Cheung. There are also notebooks, buttons, patches, pins, zines — even crocheted daisy coasters.

The machine itself is a repurposed vending machine, brightened with LED lights in the interior and given a vibrant new exterior wrap by local illustrator Paige Jung, making it a work of art on its own.

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To make sure the project benefits artists sooner, Vancouver Vending Co. purchased the items for artists up front, with the help of business improvement group Downtown Van,  instead of acquiring them on a consignment basis.

A portion of sales will go to various grassroots arts organizations. For September and October, the recipient will be Vines Art Festival, an arts organization that nurtures artists with a focus on land and water justice.

If successful, Lau envisions more art vending machines pop up elsewhere in the city. “Ideally, it would be nice to have them pop up at different events or have some kind of permanent homes,” she said. “We’ll see. We just launched this week.” 

The machine, which takes credit and debit cards, will be at its site at the food court of Bentall Centre’s Tower 4 on 1055 Dunsmuir St. for three months.

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