Visiting the Artomat
Date: Mon, 27 Feb 95 16:47:58 PST
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: Visiting the Artomat
[Here's an interesting article from 1989 - does anyone have an update?
Forwarded-by: elshaw@MIT.EDU (Libby Shaw)
Forwarded-by: email@example.com (Lyle Hodgson)
VISITING THE ARTOMAT
Where's the Art -- a collection of flashing lights, twirling dolls, oddly
dressed mannequins, a computerized 24-hour psychic, and handmade prizes
that fall from the ceiling -- is the world's first coin-operated art gallery.
So says owner Stephanie Pierce, and if you don't believe her, she'll wave
in your face pages of testimonials written by foreign visitors to her
storefront gallery here, which currently fills just two windows. In time,
when she's ready to unveil such attractions as the Hall Of Art Horrors (to
be viewed with a flashlight while Jim Nabors sings "God Didn't Make Little
Green Apples"), and the Artomobile (a gaudily decorated car seat on rollers
that transports viewers through the Art Wash), she'll expand the gallery
beyond her front door.
But for the time being, her two front windows is where the art is. Ms.
Pierce lives in the cavernous space behind the windows that is cluttered
with motors, switches, and piles of artifacts purchased from hardware and
secondhand stores, and she sleeps in a loft directly above the windows.
That is where, she says, she conducts "market research".
With a bachelor's degree in business and a law degree from Georgetown
University, the 37-year-old Ms. Pierce says she's no fool. Lying in bed,
listening to the responses of visitors to her sidewalk gallery, she can
judge by the number of quarters that roll through the slots and the
intensity of the guffaws how successful her current displays are.
And, if she just happens to hear people remarking on her electronic and
artistic wizardry in a foreign language, she hurtles down from her bed,
bursts out the front door and asks them to write in their own language,
"We don't have this in..." whatever their homeland happens to be. So far,
she has testimonials written in -- to name just a few -- Japanese, Dutch,
Swedish, Norwegian, Spanish, and Tagalog.
Even without the testimonials, she's sure that Where's the Art is the
first mechanized, coin-operated art gallery.
"I'm positive," she asserts. "I invented it!"
In the year and a half she has operated the gallery, most of her earnings
have rolled down the slot that activates the computer voice of Dr. Justin
D. Niketime, the 24-hour psychic, whose mannequin visage smiles down from
above the secondhand Commodore computer that contains his very essence.
Dr. Niketime offers analysis through multiple-choice questions, answered
by punching an array of colored buttons positioned along the windowsill.
An example: "If you could be a tree, which would you be? A. Plywood,
B. Dr. Joyce Brothers." The final analysis is often, "I'm okay. You could
Everyone gets a prize. Ms. Pierce complains that producing the handmade
prizes cuts into her profits, but the unusual knickknacks do bring people
back. Chuck & Di trading cards are big draws, not to mention 3-D psychic
calendars. All who choose to take past life regressions get pin-on name
tags that read, "Hello. My name is Ralph," or Thelma, with a history of
the former person written on the back.
Her latest attraction is the 24-hour Church of Elvis. For a quarter and
a couple of wise choices in button-punching, visitors may receive baptism,
rebirth, a sermon, or have their picture taken with Elvis -- although the
photo that pops into the prize window always seems to be of a couple of
strangers clipped from old high school annuals. (Ms. Pierce buys them
in bulk from secondhand stores.) During the entire process, 20 Elvis
statuettes spin (the miracle of the spinning Elvises, she calls it) and
colored glitter spews from a blower attached above the window.
For this Ms. Pierce gave up a lucrative job as a lawyer for AT&T in New
York City. One day she stood before her boss in her pin-striped suit and
said, "I've decided to quit my job to become an artist."
As she recalls, her boss laughed derisively and issued this dire warning:
"Someday ou'll be begging for quarters!"
"The prophecy came true!" she exclaims happily, yanking her green and
yellow tie-dyed stockings up to meet her three-quarter-length pink and
black leotard tights.
So far, the best she's done in a month is $730 in quarters. Her most
profitable day added up to $80. She has fading memories of making $200
a day as a lawyer, but that wasn't fun, so it doesn't count.
In fact, after leaving AT&T, her application to New York's Cooper Union
art school got rejected three times, so she took up waitressing. After
badly wrenching her shoulder delivering heavy trays of food, a doctor
told her, "No more waitressing, and to the doctor's surprise she wailed,
"Oh no! Does this mean I have to be a lawyer?"
The inspiration for Ms. Pierce's gallery of odds and ends came from happy
childhood memories of wandering through hardware stores. As for the name
of her establishment, it was the very question she posed every time she
visited an ordinary art gallery, she says.
Ms. Pierce is convinced she'll make an impact on the art world, in spite
of what her mother thinks.
Recently, she said, she called home to enthusiastically report, "It's a
Monday, but I've already made $10!"
"What?!!" sputtered her mother. "Are you crazy? Do you think you can
live on $10 a day? Are you out of your mind?"
But Ms. Pierce isn't worried. She's sure she is the harbinger of a new
world-wide trend of coin-op art.
"I'm going to call Nintendo and Atari to see about putting Dr. Justin D.
Niketime in vending machines in bus depots. Remember," she says with a
grin, "I majored in business!"
If it's a go, it will certainly be an American original. After all, as
they say in Sweden, "Vi har ej det har i Sverige!"
by Susan G. Hauser, a free-lance writer based in Portland, Oregon, circa 1989
© 1995 Peter Langston