Vancouver Vending Co. brings accessible art to downtown

What started as a pandemic idea has blossomed into a project that has “kind of taken over” Crystal Lau’s life.

Lau, who graduated from UBC in 2020 with a psychology degree, is the creator and curator of Vancouver Vending Co., an art vending machine currently located at 1055 Dunsmuir Street. The machine features work from around 30 local artists, from zines and stickers to pins and socks, with prices ranging from $3 to $30.

Lau’s idea arose from her desire to cultivate a safe and accessible way to display and purchase art during the COVID-19 restrictions in summer 2021. With a grant from Downtown Van, the business improvement association for downtown Vancouver, Lau began taking steps to make her dream a reality.

Though the process was not entirely smooth – Lau said that learning how to operate and program a vending machine was a challenge she hadn’t considered when she proposed her idea – reception to the project has been enthusiastic. Lau hasn’t faced any difficulty in finding interested artists to feature.

For artist Jessamine Liu, who works with polymer clay, embroidery and ceramics, the vending machine is a low-barrier way to display and sell her work. In the most recent cohort of displayed artists, she sold earrings, egg pins and mahjong pins in the machine.

Egg pins by Jessamine Liu and other artistic collectibles in the vending machines
Egg pins by Jessamine Liu and other artistic collectibles in the vending machines Crystal Lau / Vancouver Vending Machine Co

Liu, also an alum of UBC psychology, is currently attending graduate school for counselling. She said she “never imagined” producing and selling her art, because high fees for artists to sell their art in physical stores renders the process unattainable for many artists.

“The Vancouver vending machine gives an opportunity for art to be accessible for both the artists and people purchasing art,” she said.

Accessibility is also a key priority for Lau. In addition to providing a safe way for the public to access art during the pandemic, Lau strives to represent art from groups who may have been “historically marginalized from traditional art spaces.”

“It’s an easy entry point, especially for someone who’s not familiar with the art scene in Vancouver.”

Size is the only restriction for artist submissions, as pieces must fit in the “used snack machine” that now functions as a mini gallery. This makes the project accessible for artists who may not have the extensive portfolios required for submissions to traditional galleries.

For Lau, the vending machine brought together her art hobby with her work in community programming as a public engagement specialist with UBC Robson Square, where she helps organize and publicize events that bring UBC scholars together with the city centre.

Ten per cent of sales from the vending machine are donated to community organizations, with Lau selecting a new organization for each two-month cohort of artists. For September and October, donations went to the Vines Art Festival, which focuses on “land justice and Indigenous artists.” In addition to the donation, Lau invited the organization to guest-curate spaces in the machine for the November/December cohort.

Responses to the project have been positive, and people have reached out to Lau from across the country who want to establish art vending machines in their own cities. While she says that national expansion is “definitely a goal of [hers] in the future,” for the time being Lau continues to focus on the local community. She is currently planning to open one or two more machines in Vancouver, potentially including one at UBC.

Even with the success of her project, though, Lau still faces occasional obstacles in operating the machine.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to not have things get stuck in the vending machine. It’s an age-old problem that is still a tough one.”