August 6th, 2010

Bad Performance Reviews

By Ed Reiter

For years, I have been lamenting the dull, dreary–sometimes deplorable–coin designs emanating from the U.S. Mint. The result has been a huge collective yawn, followed by a murky stream of more insipid “artwork.”

Recently, however, my futile cry in the wilderness has been echoed by voices far more likely to get a respectful hearing from Mint officials: those of the federal Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), the two appointed panels that review–and render judgment on–new coin designs proposed by the Mint.

Members of both bodies were decidedly underwhelmed by the Mint’s design concepts for two commemorative coin programs coming up next year–one saluting the U.S. Army, the other the Medal of Honor. And they made no attempt to disguise their displeasure with this latest round of drab aesthetic also-rans.

After studying the designs, the Fine Arts Commission summed up its reaction in a letter to Mint Director Edmund C. Moy. It expressed “overall disappointment with the poor quality” of the work it was asked to approve.

“… The quality of designs remains embarrassingly low, both in the often amateurish character of the artwork and in the generally poor compositions,” the commission’s secretary, Tom Luebke, wrote in conveying the panel’s opinion.

 Luebke went on to say that in the commission’s view, a coin design should portray a subject as simply as possible, “rather than present a confusing collage of multiple elements.”

Gary Marks, chairman of the Citizens Committee, had a similar reaction after seeing the Army and Medal of Honor designs.

“The issue of coin design quality is a real one and it needs to be addressed,” Marks declared.

Like the Fine Arts panel, he criticized the clutter in many of the latest designs, as well as their lack of focus.

One, for instance, showed a scientist peering through a microscope while a UFO–or maybe a helicopter–hovered overhead. And why would there be a scientist on a U.S. Army coin? Your guess is as good as mine.

Another design had three distinct sections featuring, respectively, an Army surveyor, soldiers handling sandbags and a missile poised for launching.

“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 commented.

Instead of stark realism with confusing multiple images, he said, the Mint should return to the symbolism featured on the greatest U.S. coins of the past, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ magnificent $20 gold piece.

“Saint-Gaudens,” he said, “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.”

Another CCAC member, Donald Scarinci, was even more outspoken, deploring the “banality” and “lack of artistry” in the 38 designs submitted by the Mint for the Army and Medal of Honor coins.

“There is no renaissance in coin design except in Director Moy’s statements,” said Scarinci, a lawyer who collects medallic art.

“Unless we and the Commission of Fine Arts stand up and say mediocrity is not acceptable, nothing is going to happen.”

After rubber-stamping most previous coin designs or recommending the least objectionable, sometimes amid muted grumbling, the CFA and CCAC both backed their criticism this time by refusing to endorse any of the designs suggested by the Mint for certain coins.

There will be three 2011-dated coins for the Army and two for the Medal of Honor. Each program will include a $5 gold piece and a silver dollar, and the Army set also will contain a clad half dollar. That comes to a total of 10 different sides–five obverses and five reverses.

The Fine Arts Commission declined to recommend any of the Mint’s proposals for three different sides of the coins, while the Citizens Committee withheld approval from one.

Sadly, both panels are only advisory bodies, so the Mint doesn’t need their approval. What’s more, it can ignore their recommendations–and frequently does. But at least their voices are heard, before joining mine in the wilderness.

 Perhaps someday our voices will reach the ears of someone who’s committed to a real coinage renaissance–one that turns up in Americans’ pockets and purses, not just in the Mint director’s speeches.

What we need is another Teddy Roosevelt.

2010 . August . Coinage design . My Two Cents