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Viewpoint: Seeking Excellence in Coin Designs

The following remarks were first delivered by Mint Director Ed Moy March 20 at the 2008 Artistic Infusion Program Symposium in Philadelphia.
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Editor's note: The following remarks were first delivered by Mint Director Ed Moy March 20 at the 2008 Artistic Infusion Program Symposium in Philadelphia.

It's great to be here with you today to talk about the future of American coinage and answer any questions you have for me. I'm also interested in hearing what you think of this year's symposium so far. This is the first time we have offered our AIP participants some in-depth workshops on the process of rendering artistic expression into beautifully designed coins.
This is part of my focus on achieving design excellence ? consistently beautiful coins that are the highest expression of American heritage.

Will the world look back 100 years from now and declare it to be the unsurpassed Golden Age of American coin and medal design? This is the challenge I put before you today.
I have directed a number of steps in order to achieve design excellence. >

Step 1 - We made it a permanent part of who we are in the United States Mint's mission statement: The men and women of the United States Mint serve the nation by exclusively and efficiently creating the highest quality, most beautiful and inspiring coins and medals that enable commerce, reflect American values, advance artistic excellence, educate the public by commemorating people, places and events and fulfill retail demand for coins.

Step 2
- We made it an integral part of where we are going, via the United States Mint's vision statement: "To embody the American spirit through the creation of our nation's coins and medals." We made it integral by making it one of the United States Mint's five key strategic goals - Goal No. 3 - Achieving greater excellence in coin and medal design

Step 3 - I made a public statement at the FIDEM Art Medal World Congress in September, an international announcement to the world community of numismatists that I expect the United States Mint to lead the world in a neo-renaissance of coin design.

Step 4
- We have formed a Design Excellence Working Group made up of a representative from the director's office, the associate director of sales and marketing and the associate director of manufacturing. This group is developing a white paper on what measures we should take to achieve a neo-renaissance in coin and medal design at the United States Mint.

Step 5
- We are addressing the past so we can focus on the future, via the Ultra High Relief Project.<br><br>

The 1907 Saint-Gaudens Liberty $20 Gold Piece (known popularly as the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle) has come to signify great art and great American coin art. In 2009, the United States Mint will re-create the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle in Ultra High Relief, 27 millimeters in diameter with Roman Numerals, extremely close in design to the original 1907 gold piece. Americans will want to own this coin not only for its very high relief but also for its rare beauty and history.

Everyone is always comparing new coins to the iconic coins of the Golden Age of American coin design, especially Saint-Gaudens. So we are haunted by the constant reminder of one of the United States Mint's greatest disappointments ? when we could not deliver on Saint-Gaudens' vision of Ultra High Relief and had to compromise art for production. We have the technology now that we didn't have in 1907. So I have laid down this new challenge for the beginning of this new century, to take up the vision of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the art of Ultra High Relief one more time, and this time finish what was started in 1907. We will make a few bows to modernity: The coins will bear the revised date in Roman numerals in 2009. We will use the same font and location of "In God We Trust" from the 1908 Double Eagle on the new coin's reverse. Modern equipment also may create a slightly raised edge. By producing an Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, we will put our design past to rest so we can concentrate our focus on our design future.

Here are the five principles for the Neo-Renaissance of coin design:

1. Our coins and medals shall look American. Since I became Director, I have reflected seriously on what makes coins "American." My friend Bruce Cole, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, lectured last year on the subject of American Art and the American Spirit while in Shanghai. He studied three groups of art from early America, the Civil War era and the 20th century, which he believes embody the American spirit. Great art from each of these periods varies greatly in style and composition, yet each expresses the same things about the United States as a civilization:

? America's democratic character - its preference for simplicity, its ideal of equality.
? The importance we place on freedom.
? Our admiration for our greatest leaders - who are noble but humble (Alexander Gardner's photo of Abraham Lincoln).
? The struggle to be as great as our principles (Martin Puryear's sculpture "Ladder for Booker T. Washington").
? The never-ending drama of the "American experiment."
? The courage, determination, and sacrifice required by those who have defended America's founding principles ("Washington Crossing the Delaware").
? The strength of character Americans believe is essential to upholding and realizing our ideals.

Our work on the Little Rock Central High School Desegregation Silver Dollar is very American art. It shows our democratic character, our struggle to improve our society, and the never-ending drama of the American experiment, yet it is able to depict its living participants so well, they can identify themselves without seeing a portrait.

2. Our coins and medals shall reflect the artistic period they were created in. This winter, the associate directors for manufacturing, and sales and marketing and I visited three mints in Europe. We visited La Monnaie de Paris (the French Mint), which has produced the best art medals ever minted. We also visited the medallic art school connected to the Italian Mint and the Vatican for its history of minting medals for the popes.

French and Italian medals reflect the character and nature of the country that struck them. They reflect something of the age in which they were made - baroque, art deco and modern. You can immediately distinguish between an Italian art deco and a French art deco coin or medal.

Our goal is to have American coins instantly recognizable for their origin and era in the same way that European coins are. The forward-facing portrait of Thomas Jefferson on our Westward Journey Nickel Series is a great example. Not only was this the first time a forward facing portrait was done on a circulating coin, it was also symbolic of Jefferson's forward facing policy of westward expansion.

3. Our coins and medals shall tell a story. The main reason why I think the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle was such an iconic coin was that it told the story of an America at the beginning of the 20th century. Liberty strides confidently and powerfully forward in a Greco-Roman inspired gown away from the U.S. Capitol in the background, with a torch to light the way in her front hand and an olive branch in her back hand.

The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle demonstrates that liberty is central to the American spirit, has its roots in Greek and Roman civilization, is beautiful and attractive to all and, having been established in America, is marching forward into the world. Wherever Liberty goes - when preceded by God or knowledge - peace and victory follow.

On the reverse, a young eagle flies during a sunrise. This is America, young and strong, in its ascendency with a bright future before it.

Let's not over-rely on portraiture. When we have to do it, let's tell a story, too, and not make it a photographic image. When we don't have to do a portrait, let's not do one. Have we moved too far toward realism vs. artistic creativity and what makes coins American? I believe we have.

Our Congressional gold medal honoring the Tuskegee Airmen does exactly this. There is symmetry bet ween the three pilots in profile on the obverse and the three planes used on the reverse.

4. Our coins and medals shall advance our craft. Let's have the United States become known as an innovator. Where we have flexibility, let's explore allegory. Let's allow our design dreams to push our technological abilities to the cutting edge. If low relief is not required, let's explore using relief as part of our artistic expression. We have unlimited design opportunities with our 24-karat gold and our platinum coins. Let us not waste those opportunities.

5. Our coins and medals shall be beautiful. Our canvas is small and circular but uncommon beauty can exist in any size and shape. Will our coins and medals be favorably compared with the Italian Renaissance, whose designs were considered the pinnacle of medallic design, so much so that they inspired Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create the Eagle and Double Eagle? The designs of the best Renaissance medals were simple and well-executed, and spoke volumes. They were proportionate to the size of the medal and designed to maximize their circular nature.

I am the 38th Mint Director and my goal is that the 57th Mint Director in the 22nd century will want to recreate the Neo-Renaissance in coin design that began with us. I want to surpass the Golden Age of coin design which began at the start of the 20th century. If the 20th century continues to be called the Golden Age, I want the 21st century to be known as the "Platinum Age" of coinage. That is my charge to you.

Ed Moy is the director of the U.S. Mint. He considers this speech a companion and follow-up to a speech he delivered Sept. 19, 2007, to the FIDEM art of the medal conference in Colorado Springs, Colo. Here are the comments from that speech

Thank you, Ken, and good morning everyone. I am delighted to be here and want to begin by congratulating FIDEM, its President Carlos Baptista de Silva, and its Honorary President Lars Lagerquist on the 70th Anniversary of FIDEM and the 30th Anniversary of the FIDEM Art Medal World Congress.

I also want to say thank you to the ANA and its President Barry Stuppler for hosting this event and inviting me to participate. The United States Mint has enjoyed an excellent relationship with the American Numismatic Association for many years and is delighted to take part in the FIDEM Art Medal World Congress. This is my second visit to the ANA museum, and I am looking forward to attending the FIDEM show there and seeing your theme, Passages to Reconstruction, carried out in many beautiful medallic sculptures on display.

As the 38th Director of the United States Mint, I'd like to say "welcome" to all the artists from other nations around the world as well as to our American medallic artists, including Don Everhart and Jim Licaretz of the United States Mint. I also wanted to say a special hello to Don Scarinci, who serves on our Citizens Coin Advisory Commission. I have read Don's treatise on arts medals and for those who will attend his seminar, you are in for a special treat.

I have been Director for more than a year now and am enjoying every aspect of it.

On a personal level, it has been wonderful to have my father stop complaining about my not going to medical school. Now he can brag to his friends that his son "finally has a job where he makes a lot of money." And of course, my Chinese friends have renamed me from Moy Goon Fong to "Moy Ca-Ching." My really hip friends have taken that a step further - "Moy Bling Bling."

Inspiring Excellence

I accepted this invitation because I wanted to talk to you about my ambitions and goals for coin and medal design at the United States Mint. First, I want and intend to spark a Neo-Renaissance of coin design and achieve a new level of design excellence that will be sustained long after my term expires. I believe design excellence at the United States Mint is something medallic artists and your organization can influence. Second, I want you to know the first steps that we are taking to make vision into reality. Finally, I want to invite you to contribute to our efforts to create a renaissance in coin design.

A Strategic Vision for the United States Mint

America's coins and medals should be beautiful and meaningful though they will never be art for art's sake. My first strategic plan for the United States Mint is almost complete and our vision (idealized final state) for the United States Mint is "to embody the American spirit through the creation of our nation's coins and medals." One of our five goals is to "achieve greater excellence in coin and medal design."

Few things are more personal than currency - it is part of what defines America. That's what Saint-Gaudens illustrated so well - his 1907 Double Eagle says so much about the U.S. at the turn of the century and what it aspired to be.

The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is a sculpture executed on a small circular surface. On the obverse, Saint-Gaudens shows us Liberty, personified by a beautiful woman striding powerfully forward wearing a Greco-Roman gown, leading the way with a torch in her front hand and an olive branch in the back hand. From this design we intuit that liberty is central to the American spirit, has its roots in Greek and Roman philosophy, is beautiful and attractive to all, and wherever Liberty goes, when preceded by God, peace follows.

On the reverse is a young eagle flying during a sun rise. This is America, young and strong, in its ascendancy with a bright future before it. An artistic triumph, the coin succeeds because it so completely embodies the American spirit of the age.

From my perspective, that is what makes a coin produced in the U.S. great: truly American, capturing our national psyche, and a stunning piece of art. My dream and hope is that there will be a new renaissance in American coin and medal design at the beginning of this new millennium and that the world will reflect back 100 years from now and say that the beginning of the 20th century was great, but the 21st century was even better.

The Artistic Infusion Program (AIP)

We have begun taking some small steps toward our vision. The United States Mint began a program in 2004 called the Artistic Infusion Program, AIP for short, intended to shake things up and bring new energy to coin design at the United States Mint. Several hundred applications were accepted from artists representing a broad spectrum of mediums including painting, sculpture, graphic design and drawing and illustration.

In the first class we had 24 artists who worked on designs for the Westward Journey Nickel Series? and 50 State Quarters® Program. In 2005, we added some designers to the class and had them submit designs for a wide range of coins - a nickel, quarters, the American Eagle Platinum Coin program and the Jamestown 400th Anniversary Commemorative coins.

The 2007 class has seven Master designers, seven Associates and four students and they are being invited to submit designs on an ever wider range of coins and medals. To date, AIP artists have won 33 of 53 commissions and have brought new ideas and vitality to our artistic efforts.

Looking for Inspiration

When I became Director, I wanted to inspire all of these artists--the current class of Artistic Infusion Program artists and the sculptor/engravers who are employees of the United States Mint. All the artists were invited to submit designs for the First Spouse coins and medals, the companion series to the Presidential $1 Coin Program. So I took them to the White House to look at the First Ladies' portraits first hand. I wanted them to see original source material and the White House is the largest repository of First Lady portraits.

I took them to the National Gallery of Art where a fri end of mine is a curator of Italian Renaissance Art and whose doctoral dissertation was on Renaissance medals. She led a private tour to look at the collections, both on display and in storage. Because Saint-Gaudens was so inspired by the classicism, balance, and proportion of Renaissance medals, I wanted our artists to see first hand what the fuss was all about.

I also took everyone to the State Department where one of the Nation's best collections of early American decorative art resides. We took a look at the diplomatic reception rooms - which were richly paneled with moldings from several historic homes. They contained a set of Paul Revere's silver and housed the desk where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

What's Good About Current Coin Design

What's good about current coin and medal design at the United States Mint? We do a good job of commemorating people, places and events - our country's history and culture--and we keep getting better at it. Our best work establishes an emotional connection: The Norman Borlaug and Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Gold Medal obverses have received praise. Both are by Phebe Hemphill, one of our newer sculptor/engravers, who is capturing the essence of the person or event as well as the image.

AIP artist Richard Masters' gave us a wonderful evocation of the walk of nine black teenagers into segregated Central High School on the Little Rock Central High Desegregation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Silver Dollar obverse. Don Everhart's Statue of Liberty design--the reverse on the entire Presidential $1 Coin series--is another example of exemplifying the American spirit.

And using the Statue of Liberty on the reverse was a creative way to make sure that liberty was on the coin, in symbol if not in word. His Dolley Madison First Spouse obverse also captures the energy of James Madison's vivacious wife. These are a just a few examples of how overall our designs are improving.

We are also proud of the result of interesting design innovations like the forward-facing Jefferson nickel, so appropriate in showing a forward thinking president who had the foresight to expand our country westward through the Louisiana Purchase. And importantly, breaking from the tradition of using a profile, a forward-facing subject brings a 21st century perspective to an historic era. We are raising the bar of what we will and won't except. We've redefined our aesthetic standards upwards, employing digital engraving and encouraging free form.

Annually, we are designing two commemorative coins or coin series which authorize surcharge funds for organizations - the commemoratives provide some flexibility within the preferences of the recipient organizations. Three rotating design coin programs offer varying degrees of design flexibility:

The five annual state quarters are, generally speaking, up to the states. They give us five themes in narrative form, we produce designs and then the Governor recommends a finalist. Then the Secretary of the Treasury approves that choice.

The four coins in the Presidential $1 Coin Series to be produced annually through at least 2016 call for portraits of the Presidents, and our Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee is rightly insisting those portraits be of the Presidents at the same age as when they held office.

The four First Spouse Coins and medals have to be portraits on the obverse but offer some flexibility on the reverse?but the design needs to be emblematic of the life and work of the First Spouse.

We are nearly always carrying out special coin legislation. Currently, it is the new Lincoln Penny four-coin series for 2009 to commemorate various stages of Lincoln's life on the 200th anniversary of his birth. There is variety in these Congressional commissions but not a lot of flexibility.

Congressional Gold Medals offer the most flexibility in terms of relief, if not subject matter. The Dalai Lama Congressional Gold Medal will be unveiled in mid-October, and we think the obverse by Don Everhart captures the peace and joy of the 14th Dalai Lama's personality. The reverse inscription is the work of Joseph Menna, a medallic sculptor who is also our number one digital engraving expert.

Design Excellence Despite Constraints

For rotating designs, one-of-a-kind medals and circulating coins, we possess good everyday skills, well above functionality and getting better all the time.

We are not yet at the highest point of our reach in medal or coin design. Of course, there are considerable constraints - for instance when Congress mandated the first American 24-karat gold coins in 1996, they also dictated the design - the James Earle Fraser buffalo and Indian head design from 1906. It's a beautiful design but leaves no room to grow from the experience and strive for new excellence.

Despite these constraints, wherever the United States Mint maintains flexibility, I want to spark a new awakening of excellence in coin design, and embody the American spirit in new and renewed allegorical or iconic symbolism. The 24K gold coin and bullion program is a golden opportunity for this. After the first year, the 24K gold coins and platinum designs are not dictated by Congress.

Another opportunity is in my own Mint Director's medal. I have been bombarding Sculptor-Engraver John Mercanti with ideas. I have been impressed with the great sculptor Frederick Hart, whose most famous work is Ex Nihilo, Maquette, which graces the National Cathedral's west facade. His work is modern yet classical, allegorical yet approachable. So one idea I have shared with John and his team is to have an incomplete portrait of me on the obverse. I do not feel that God is finished, and I know I am far from perfect. My portrait should reflect that.

For my reverse, some of the ideas that I have shared include a modern rendition of Lady Liberty to represent the era during which I served as United States Mint Director. This modern rendition would feature liberty, personified by a beautiful woman, but more multi-ethnic in character because today, liberty is not a Caucasian concept. And compared to Saint-Gauden's vision, I would put Lady Liberty on a diet and make her more muscular as liberty at the beginning of the 21st century has a much more muscular and forceful presence in the world. And because I serve a President who believes that liberty is God's gift to the world and not just western civilization, I recommended a wardrobe change to a gown that was less Greco-Roman and more minimalist. Because the Director's medal has fewer statutory constraints than our circulation coins, I would like to see higher relief, so it becomes more like an arts medal and less like a big circulating coin.

Near-Term Opportunities for Great Design

In recent American Eagle Platinum Proof Coin designs, allegorical figures have made a welcome return to American coinage with reverses representing the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. The next American Eagle Platinum Proof Coin designs will focus on America's founding documents?the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The goal is not to show the documents themselves but to evoke iconic images of the intelligence and spirit of the Americans who created them and the values that sustain those documents today. Some of the opportunities we have in the near-term to raise the bar of design excellence in American coinage and medallic art include Congressional Gold Medals, national medals and the 2008 American Bald Eagle commemorative - celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act - which will show the evolution of the eagle from hatchling to adult.

Invitation to American Medallic Artists

Of course, the bar that was set by Saint-Gaudens and others in the early 20th century is very high a nd hard to reach. But by assembling the right talent, providing the right inspiration, communicating American values and evoking the American spirit, we can spur a Neo-Renaissance in American coin design. We will allow the golden age of coin design to inspire and guide us but the future is not in recreating the past. It is in striving to uniquely capture the start of a NEW millennium.

Within natural constraints, I intend to lead the United States Mint to create the best, most beautiful coins and medals in the world, and some of the finest in history. At the next call for artists in the United States Mint's Artistic Infusion Program, I invite you to apply and help us take coin and medal design to the next level.

Again, my congratulations to you and to FIDEM on your history of achievement in medallic artistry. Thank you for inviting me to open the 30th Art Medals World Congress.

Viewpoint is a forum for the expression of opinion on a variety of numismatic subjects. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Numismatic News.
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