This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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If the U.S. wants better coin designs, then Mint artists need the freedom to create.
That message came out loud and clear as the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee adopted recommendations Jan. 19 for advancing artistic design quality in the coins and medals produced by the U.S. Mint.
“We have phenomenal artists, but we need to create an environment for them that is inducive to being creative,” said Gary Marks, CCAC chairman.
The CCAC unanimously approved a subcommittee report on coin design excellence that contained three recommendations:
• Take the artistic design process out of the hands of the sales and marketing department and put it in the hands of an art director.
• Create an environment for Mint artists that inspires creativity.
• Integrate the roles of the CCAC and Commission of Fine Arts earlier in the design selection process.
As part of the new process an art director, who would report to the Mint director, would oversee the sculptor/engravers and Artistic Infusion Program.
That person would also be part of an internal group that would set a timetable for the design and production of new coins and medals, said Marks, who also chaired the subcommittee. The sales and marketing department would then be able to focus on what it does best, rather than design, he said.
As for a lack of quality in coin design, it has very little to do with the skills and a bility of the artists, Marks said.
Call it a consequence of their environment and limitations put on their artistic freedom.
“The Mint sculptors and engravers currently work in little cubicles in a windowless room,” Marks said. “They have little access to ongoing training, conferences on medallic art, or interaction with outside artists.”
Give them a workplace with some natural light and the ability to visit sites they are to depict, the subcommittee said.
“If we really want excellence in coin design then we need to create an environment that fosters that,” Marks said.
Take the design for the 2011 Gettysburg National Park quarter.
“We were not happy with the designs we were presented with,” Marks said. “We felt a national battlefield like Gettysburg really deserved a moving image that would remind us of the sacrifice that took place there. What we had were depictions of memorials at the park.”
A visit to Gettysburg by the artist may have elicited a feel for the environment and the battle that took place, Marks said.
It’s time to move away from “trace and bake” coin design where, in the case of Presidential and First Spouse portraits, artists are given a limited number of existing old photographs or old paintings and bascially asked to produce something much the same for the coin design, Marks said.
The job of the next Mint director is one of “liberating the artists and letting the artists be artists,” said CCAC and subcommittee member Donald Scarinci.
Last May, the CCAC reviewed designs for a commemorative coin honoring the U.S. Army, he noted. It was CCAC member Michael Olson who pointed out at the time that the the Army emblem as it was portrayed was not accurate, he said.
The committee would like to see an outside historian consulted by the Mint to assure the historical accuracy of coin designs. That would prevent such inaccuracies.
It also wants the CCAC and CFA to take part in creating the narratives used as a basis for coin designs and for the chairman of each group to review every design created by the Mint staff of sculptors and engravers before they are presented to the full committees.
A general discontent with designs led to the creation of the subcommittee last fall. A review process included interviews with 18 individuals at the U.S. Mint concerning what could be done to advance excellence in coinage design, Marks said. From that review, came the recommendations.
Subcommittee member Heidi Wastweet said everyone conducting the interviews was floored by the candor and deep passion the Mint staff exhibited.
“They cared more about the quality of the coins than their own personal position,” she said.
So, does the quality of U.S. coin designs really matter?
“It matters for our nation,” Marks said.
As coins move from hand to pocket, the designs – at least on a subconscious level – are impacting the individual, he said.
“Those designs tell a story about who we are as a nation, our national values, our past, our values of liberty, freedom, equal rights,” Marks said. “All of these things are communicated through the designs that are carried on our coins.”
And the U.S. Mint does have talented artists who create excellent coin designs, Scarinci said.
“I don’t want any doubt in any mind that the collection of artists currently working for the U.S. Mint is probably the finest group of artists and most talented group of artists that America has had since the renaissance a hundred years ago,” Scarinci said.
The Coin of the Year Award bestowed annually by Krause Publications’ World Coin News has recognized U.S. coins, he said, citing the 2000 Leif Erickson commemorative coin as an example. The award names one major winner and winners in subcategories such as most innovative and most historical.
“We have the talent to win in these categories and to be recognized throughout the world all the time, if we just let the artists do what they do,” Scarinci said.
The CCAC recommendations will be sent to the Secretary of the Treasury.