This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The quality of coin designs presented recently by the U.S. Mint is being criticized by the Commission of Fine Arts and Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee.
“The issue of coin design quality is a real one and it needs to be addressed,” said Gary Marks, chairman of the CCAC. “The committee’s dissatisfaction was very apparent at the last meeting.”
In recent weeks the CCAC and CFA have reviewed designs for two sets of commemorative coins proposed for issue in 2011, one for the Medal of Honor and one for the United States Army. For some coins, both groups were unable to find any design proposals acceptable.
“We are getting pictorial decorative art,” said CCAC member Donald Scarinci. “We aren’t getting anything bold or inspiring or new or innovative. The only time those four words get used are in Director (Ed) Moy’s speeches. And the speeches have no bearing with reality.”
In a letter addressed to Moy, the CFA expressed “overall disappointment with the poor quality” of the alternatives presented for the 2011 commemoratives.
“...The quality of designs remains embarrassingly low, both in the often amateurish character of the artwork and in the generally poor compositions,” CFA secretary Tom Luebke wrote on behalf of the commission.
The coins and medals should distill the subject to its essence, Luebke wrote, “rather than present a confusing collage of multiple elements.”
Marks said the designs are more storyboard than allegorical and fail to use symbolism, which has always been a major device in portraying ideas in medallic art.
Take, for example, the Saint-Gaudens $20 gold piece, Marks said. Meant to depict a young nation that is strong, he used symbolism rather than multiple images of people doing tasks.
“Saint-Gaudens gave us an allegorical symbol of Liberty pictured as very strong, walking toward us as if coming into the future with some powerful allegorical symbols in her hands. It was that symbolism that made the design great. What we often see now is the storyboard approach.”
Recent designs for a coin honoring the U.S. Army had images of people stacking sandbags, looking through a microscope and working in an Army command center.
“Those are just not designs that are appropriate for a coin, particularly a small coin that is little more than an inch in diameter,” Marks said.
The CFA concurred, noting that “the U.S. Mint should approach the design process as the creation of small pieces of sculpture to be held in the hand.”
Luebke questioned how much the Mint participates in the formulation of the actual narratives that are adopted by Congress in the coin and medal authorization process.
“In some cases it may be the narratives themselves that are too restrictive and complicated that lead to these overwrought compositions,” Luebke said.
Just don’t blame the artists for the designs presented for consideration, Scarinci said, calling them probably the most talented group of artists at the Mint since the turn of the (20th) century.
“What’s frustrating me is I know what these artists are capable of and I know what they’ve done,” Scarinci said, naming artists including John Mercanti, Don Everhart, Joe Mena and Phoebe Hemphill.
“I agree with Donald,” Marks said. “This isn’t about the skill or ability of our artists. This is about the process that produces these designs. But I’m not going to point a finger. We are all in this together and need to find a solution together.”
Director Ed Moy said he’s ready to make that happen.
“While we have wonderful artists on staff, and have brought in outside ideas via the Artistic Infusion Program, we know we can do better,” Moy said. “I have laid out a vision, and we are working to make sure that the right infrastructure and resources are in place to nurture creativity along.”
But Scarinci is not convinced.
“The fact that the CFA and the CCAC only rarely see great coin and medal designs is not the fault of John Mercanti or the artists who work with him,” Scarinci said. “The fault, unfortunately, is with the Director himself. The standard of excellence that Director Moy set for himself and his staff in 2007 (at the FIDEM convention) is the standard that history will use to judge his directorship.
“By his own standard, Ed Moy has failed.”
But beauty can’t be forced, Moy said.
“The only American renaissance of coin design occurred because of a committed President and one of the best artists our country has ever had,” Moy said. “Absent that, beauty cannot be forced to happen nor created by a recipe book.
“I’m also in the process of contracting for the services of expertise in arts management to further cultivate artistic excellence, to help lay the foundation for the Mint and inspire some breakthroughs.”
The process followed to produce the designs may be part of the problem, Marks said.
“We’re at the end of the process and are presented finished designs and asked to recommend them,” Marks said. “We need more of a dialogue and to be in touch with each other so the product at the end can be something people are excited about.
“I don’t want just good. I want outstanding and exceptional,” Marks said. “Other nations are doing it, and I feel we can, too. And we will get there.”
But that won’t happen without drastic changes, Scarinci said.
“I think it is long overdue for the President to replace the Director, and thereby replace the senior staff,” Scarinci said.
The Mint is being run as a manufacturing facility by public employees “obsessed with deadlines, marketing concerns and a passion to avoid controversy and public discord,” Scarinci said. “The art that comes from the sculptors is mere decoration, and the input by the CFA and the CCAC is not sought, but tolerated because Congress requires it by law.”
Luebke noted that a study of design decisions for coins and medals over the past five years showed that the choice the Mint made was consistent with CFA recommendations slightly less than half the time.