Art on automatic in Mildura

The Mildura Arts Centre is full of surprises.

I slip a coin into the slot of the shiny vending machine in the foyer of the Mildura Arts Centre. The Art-o-mat is an arresting lime green, with strips of wood veneer adding class. The handle turns, an item drops, and I fetch a little cardboard box from the tray below. Forgive me, I'm indulging my craving - for art.

The box is the same size as a cigarette pack, but instead contains a translucent purple pendant on a ribbon, the work of an artist operating under the banner "Glassybits". It'll make a great present for my wife.

The first Art-o-mat was created by American artist Clark Whittington in 1997, dispensing his black and white photographs mounted on blocks. Now there are dozens of the repurposed cigarette machines around the world.

Each is stocked with works created by artists from across the network, which can be bought with a $5 token. It's a steal - and much better for your health than the vending machine's original payload.

But the Art-o-mat isn't the only arty highlight of the rural city. The Mildura Arts Centre is an impressive architectural work. It fuses a cutting-edge theatre building with the 1889 mansion Rio Vista, which was reinvented in the postwar years as an art gallery.

The collection's prize possession is its Degas piece, Femme a la baignoire se coiffant, and there are works from famous Australian artists such as Streeton, Boyd and McCubbin.

I'm particularly taken with a 1944 Russell Drysdale drawing titled Country North of Balranald, a stark depiction of drought via skeletal dead trees, animal bones and bleached landscape.

A distinctive recent piece is Jim Thalassoudis' Motel, an oil painting featuring the sign of Mildura's former Riviera Motel in all its retro glory.

There's more to admire at The Art Vault, a privately owned gallery in a former bank on Mildura's main drag, Deakin Avenue. Its main room is an intimate, friendly space with none of the formality of a larger institution, and a sofa or two from which to admire the art. 

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Its exhibitions often feature the work of local artists, for a very good reason - the gallery conducts an artist in residence program as well as hiring out studios to budding talents. On request the staff will take you on a guided tour of the upstairs studios, where you can chat to the artists about their work.

On the day I visit, the main room features a striking set of shop dummies dressed by artist Carmel Wallace for her Lake Suite exhibition and incorporating digital photography. Wrapped in netting, twigs, shells, bottle caps and other found objects, the figures suggest to me ancient pagan spirits. It seems a good omen: art and myth combining here in Mildura, where the Murray meets the desert.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

The facts 

FLY Return flights to Mildura start from $230.

STAY Quality Hotel Mildura Grand, 129 Seventh Street. From $145 a night. Commodore Motor Inn, 2 Deakin Avenue. From $115 a night.

SEE Mildura Arts Centre, 199 Cureton Avenue. The Art Vault, 43 Deakin Avenue.

EAT Mildura Brewery, 20 Langtree Avenue. The New Spanish Bar and Grill, corner Langtree Avenue & Seventh Street.

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