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Become a $5 Art Collector With the Art-o-mat

08/30/2010 03:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My art collection seems to be suffering from inflation. I couldn't find anywhere in the Smithsonian American Art museum to break a $20 bill into fives. After making my way to the third floor, up the gorgeous stairs, through the elaborately restored (and true to its name) Great Hall and into the Luce Foundation Center, a room with free coffee, an eclectic group of sculptures and a strange glow, I found myself in front of an old cigarette vending machine with a new life.

2010-08-26-artomat_200.jpg I went to the American Art museum yesterday with the express intention of buying a couple of tiny pieces of art from a vending machine because... well, because it is genuine art from a vending machine in the Smithsonian!

I also found myself with no way to make my large bills smaller. The nice ladies at the info desk in the Luce Foundation Center suggested the gift shop. Three floors down, though the big mezzanine-courtyardy thing, and on the other side of the building. I did learn, however, that the trash cans in the courtyard cafe say "thank you," when someone makes a deposit. I was surprised to note that no one - even small children - seemed taken aback by this. I mean, it's a tourist destination. Presumably it is not filled with jaded commuters at 2pm on a Wednesday who have had their fill of Freakishly Advanced talking trash cans already and just want to dispose of the damn wrapper without looking up from their Blackberries. In fact, I'd go so far as to venture that these cans are more polite than most Washingtonians (I'm looking at you, lady who jumped ahead of me with her daughter through the door I was holding without so much as a smile or thank you. Harumph), but I digress.

Fives firmly in hand, I returned to the Luce Foundation Center and reviewed my options, settling on a two-inch painting (with easel!) by Sarah Whittington and a reactive glass bobby pin by Gerry Klein.

Man, I love my tiny art. How accessible is this? And what a great thing to do at the museum that isn't just observational. It's a tiny participation, an interaction that contains an element of surprise (you don't, after all, know precisely what you'll get from the general descriptions), and something you can take with you.

This totally outshone my experience with a similar vending machine in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago. In - I think - the Nike office building, there was a gumball-style machine, where for 50 cents and a turn of the knob, you were issued a plastic bubble with some kind of art inside. Mine had two quarters and two pennies and cookie-style fortune that said "your efforts will be worthwhile." It was pretty underwhelming.

And honestly, the Art-o-mat also outshone my long and wheezing experience with cigarette vending machines during my misspent youth.

How to find the Art-o-mat

Hie thee to the Luce Foundation Center on the third floor of the American Art Museum. In fact, one of the guards told me that starting at the top and working your way down is the best way to see the collections. The building is home to both the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum - two separate facilities that share the edifice. The distinction is very important to the fine people of the Smithsonian Institution, but sometimes awkward to the lay visitor. Don't worry - it's not just you.

Tip to the wise

Bring small bills. The Art-o-mat only takes singles and fives. While we all believe in change, it can be a long and winding road.

Learn about the Art-o-mat from these more reliable sources:

Cool stuff nearby:

When you're in the Luce Foundation Center, don't neglect to go up to the mezzanine. There they have a lot of artifacts in a little bit of space, and some great displays about the vast, unseen archives of the Smithsonian. Also, the Lunder Conservation Center is around the corner, where you can see art conservation either in action with snazzily dressed conservators (their aprons were designed by Isaac Mizrahi), or work on hiatus but in situ. It's like a special insider tour that you can just wander up to - a great and rarely seen view into the workings of museums, preservation and science.

Down the hall from the Art-o-mat, also on the third floor, is an incredible light-filled column that's hard to describe. It broadcasts spinning and ever-changing messages that are - for whatever reason - very somber. It is both mesmerizing and dizzying to look at for long moments. Amazing. It is housed in what I call "The big art" room, though the museum calls it something far more appropriate, like "Contemporary Art."

Disclosure: No one paid me to write this post. Though that would be pretty great, wouldn't it? It is cross-posted at Nutgraf.net