By Michael Neill Jamie M. Saul
November 21, 1988 12:00 PM

In the lobby of a Manhattan movie theater, a man and a woman stand in front of an old-fashioned ice-cream vending machine, oblivious to the crowds milling around them. The man feeds four quarters into the coin slot. Then he pushes a button, opens a little door, reaches inside and pulls out something that definitely isn’t ice cream. It appears to be a small piece of white fur attached to a black rubber mat.

The man and the woman look at this odd little thing. “Last time I got furniture casters,” he says happily as they stroll into the night with their newest treasure. They have become patrons of the arts, and for a lot less than it ever cost Lorenzo de’ Medici.

At a time when Van Gogh’s Irises can fetch $53.9 million at auction and $247,830 is bid on Andy Warhol’s cookie jars, there are bargains to be found in the art market. At least there are for those who steer clear of the high-priced environs of Sotheby’s and Christie’s and patronize Vend’ art machines where, for as little as 75 cents, original artworks are available to the discerning collector.

The machines—there are eight in five different cities—are the idea of Ona Linquist, a Brooklyn-born artist and former furniture designer who installed the first one for the public in 1985 at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village. Linquist, 36, says she got the idea during a conversation with a friend who owns a Brooklyn vending-machine corporation. He told her that he had a number of 1957 ice-cream machines that he was planning to replace. “The idea of Vend’art came to mind immediately,” she says.

With help from her husband, internist Kenny Weinberg, 40, Linquist bought the machines for $175 apiece, spent $200 each to have them reconditioned and went to work. The first one was stocked with tiny objets d’art that Linquist describes as “very much in the Dada and Surrealist tradition of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray—five metal springs attached to a strip of white canvas, a lady’s garter next to a half sphere of pink carpenter’s chalk, two chrome oven-door handles.”

Linquist’s found art found a market at once. She installed additional machines at an Atlanta nightclub, a San Francisco boutique and a Charleston, S.C., clothing store, and the stuff continued to sell. She began stocking works by other artists. “Initially,” she says, “it was all my own work, but whenever I told someone about Vend’art, it generated ideas, so I decided to have an Artist of the Month. Everyone loved the idea of selling art through a vending machine.”

So far, more than 30,000 pieces by 90 artists have been bought. “It’s serious work by very serious people,” says Linquist, who pays 60 cents to the creators for every piece. Patrons don’t know what they’re getting until they reach in, which, says Linquist, is part of the fun. A door marked “Letters to Ollie,” for instance, dispenses small packets of shredded paper. Another, “Medical Arts,” gives up an EKG tracing complete with a thumbnail medical history of “a 66-year-old white male with a myocardial infarction.” Still another, labeled “Kill for Peace Again,” surrenders tiny volumes of cartoons, songs and aphorisms by Tuli Kupferberg, a founder of the Fugs in the 1960s. (“The trick,” says Kupferberg, “was to see if a book could squeeze into a space the size of an ice-cream stick.”)

Curator Andrea Kirsh gave a four-month run to one of Linquist’s machines at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, Fla., when Kirsh was there in 1986, and she says that they are more than just highbrow Crackerjack boxes. “A large part of 20th-century art is about breaking down traditions,” says Kirsh, “and Ona’s work does this.” What’s more, with the way the art market is these days, there’s always the possibility that Linquist’s works will appreciate in value. Then, who knows? That little something now selling for $1.50 could be worth, oh, $1.75 some day.

—Michael Neill, and Jamie M. Saul in New York