Denver artists stock Understudy's Art Claw arcade machine with art

The global pandemic has prompted many of us to treat public interactions as grab-and-go challenges.

Get in, get what you need, and get out as fast as you possibly can.

But it’s also spurred Thadeaous Nighell, director of the Understudy experimental arts-and-culture incubator, to take an artistic approach to his decidedly 2020 dilemmas: How to support Denver artists, distribute art and engage with the community when people are rightfully wary of lingering in public?

With Understudy’s gallery space — a 700-square-foot patch inside the Colorado Convention Center — closed due to the building’s city use as a backup coronavirus hospital, Nighell dusted off an idea from the past.

“Back when I ran Unit E (a gallery in the Art District on Santa Fe) in 2013, we had a coin-pusher machine filled with unique little prizes and trinkets,” said Nighell, who also worked as the former adult programs director for the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. “It was a huge hit, and for years we tried to think of ways to revisit it.”

Nighell and his Unit E partner David Moke (now also at Understudy) labored to find affordable, used arcade hardware they could refashion to sell art. There were inspired by groups such as Detroit’s Deluxx Fluxx, which makes custom, neon-spiked, fully functioning art-arcades. But they also owe a debt, Mighell said, to artist Clark Whittington’s Art-o-Mats — those refurbished cigarette machines that made a splash when they debuted in 1997, and have been copied in countless ways since then.

“The problem is that nobody wants to sell claw machines, because they do make quite a bit of passive income for their owners,” said Mighell, 34. “But we found one on Craigslist that was being sold from a run-down bodega on East Colfax for only $500. I’m no mechanical wizard, but I figured, ‘It’s from the ’70s. How complicated could it be?’ ”

Very complicated, as it turns out. But with Mighell’s tinkering background (he does his own car repairs) and help from Game Exchange of Colorado, he got it working again.

Stuffed with small, original artworks from local artists and a fresh coat of paint (courtesy of participating artist Raymundo Muñoz), Understudy’s first Art Claw machine debuted on Sept. 25 at The Dairy Block’s IRL art gallery.

The Art Claw is much more than a self-contained version of Art Drop Day, wherein local artists annually hide original pieces around the city and send fans on social media-driven scavenger hunts. It’s also the pilot for Understudy’s Artcade program, which is hoping to roll out a similar “fleet of custom machines” in more locations around the city and, eventually, open its own, standalone arcade.

“David and I went down there to have a drink and watch from the patio,” Mighell said of The Dairy Block, where you can currently sip cocktails in Run for the Roses’ lush pandemic patio in the alley. “People were really engaged and excited and asking their friends for coins. And that was before the official First Friday launch event even started.”

So what can you win? Artist Andi Todaro contributed original plushie figures, while Alexandria Jimenez made mixed-media wearable crowns. Muñoz, who painted the machine, added tiny art ‘zines and limited-edition original prints, amid various Access Gallery artists and their contributions (3-D printed figures, sculptures, keychains, pins and buttons).

But don’t worry: Popping 50 cents into the machine won’t be a complete waste of money, as with most “claw game” machines that seem rigged to fail. As with other experiments in the art-and-gaming sphere (including Brian Corrigan’s OhHeckYeah gaming-and-art festival in 2014), this gamble is designed to pay off.

“We needed this pilot to figure out the balance between winnability and the cost of the prizes,” Mighell said. “Because right now, we’re paying artists $20 per unit, and it’s only 50 cents to play. Revenue-generation was never the point, but it’s pretty easy to win something because there are all kinds of switches inside to make it easier or harder.”

Mighell said he’s been flooded with artists who want to contribute, and retailers, galleries and other spaces interested in hosting the machines. But he’ll be lucky to have even two more up and running before year’s end, he said.

“This is a template for something we can fabricate on a larger scale, which will drive down the cost per unit and make it more feasible,” said Mighell, whose Understudy work is funded by the Denver Theatre District. “But unlike a vending machine, this takes a bit of skill. And if our goal is to get art to people, then that sense of earning it makes your prize a little bit more special.”

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