I have a news clipping in my library that the U.S. Treasury was looking for a couple of good artists to create coin designs in 1854. Nothing became of it. The same engravers in the Philadelphia Mint’s Engraving room remained entrenched.
They created new coin designs, had dies cut and struck sample coins numismatists call “patterns.” Most were rejected.
A similar appeal appeared in 1890 with a somewhat increased response. American artists responded. While researching early American engravers I uncovered one, Hiram W. Hayden, who engraved dies for Scovill as a teenager, went on to establish his own factories in brass city Waterbury and became wealthy. He retained his interest in bas-relief design, even made wax models as a hobby. As a seventy-year-old he submitted a proposed silver dollar design of a girl’s head in answer to the Treasury’s appeal.
Again, the Treasury accepted none of the public’s proposed designs. The Mint’s engravers, George Morgan’s silver dollar and Charles Barber’s subsidiary silver coin designs were placed on the circulating coins to continue for another two decades. American coin designs remained staid and lifeless into the 20th century.
Meanwhile in Europe, coin design was developing into magnificence. The Paris Mint encouraged their engravers with support from the government and their art academies. In Italy a school for coin and medal engraving was established at the Zecca Mint. Coin design in these countries advanced for this support.
It took a United States president, Theodore Roosevelt, and America’s greatest sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to change all that in America. Roosevelt commissioned Saint-Gaudens to create new coin designs. Understandably Mint Engravers Barber and Morgan fought this intrusion. But the president prevailed.
This set the course, inevitably, where other talented sculptors, all members of the National Sculpture Society, were successful in submitting coin designs which were accepted and placed on the circulating cons:
- Victor David Brenner on the Cent
- James Earle Fraser on the Five Cent
- Adolph Weinman on the Dime and Half Dollar
- Hermon MacNeil on the Quarter Dollar
- John Flanagan on the Quarter Dollar
- Anthony de Francisci on the Silver Dollar.
As a side note every one of those new coin designs, as well as dozens more for commemorative coin designs, Medallic Art Company was involved. Henri and Felix Weil assisted in their creation by making galvano casts, intermediate reductions, or even hubs for the artists prior to those relief designs being submitted to the U.S. Mint.
It should be noted, most importantly, these were top sculptors in the field at the time. They were seasoned artists, talented sculptors, excellent designers, consonant craftsmen, and competent modelers. They knew good design and were able to apply this to the task at hand, even on the small scale of a coin size design.
Also it should be noted the sculptor designed both obverse and reverse. The coin or medal was one unified work of art, despite the fact it had two sides, an object known in the art field as a dyptich.
Since these were such good designs, then, why didn’t the government hire a couple of these artists to design coins full time? The sculptors would not have accepted such restricted employment. These artists were busy full time with monuments, memorials, statues, busts, architectural work. Creating coins full time was out of scope of their desired art career.
Two events were to change coin design in America beginning in the late 1980s. One was a policy of accepting different artists designs of separate sides of any coin or medal. This first occurred in 1987. The other was that the U.S. Congress, beginning in 1988, increased authorization of commemorative coins, also increasing the work load of the U.S. Mint’s engraving department.
For the first two years Congress authorized only one new commemorative coin a year. But in 1991 it had increased to five, seven in 1992, five in 1993, eight in 1994, exploding to 20 in 1995 (with the XXVI Olympiad), and such. Sales of commemorative coins included a surcharge of funds paid to a sponsoring organization. Politically connected organizations found this a source of easy revenue. An obliging Congress provided this.
This exploded even more so in the new century. By then the U.S. Mint had established a department for marketing coins to American citizens. The Statehood quarters began in 1999. A new quarter reverse was required every third month. This in addition to new commemoratives, and in addition to Congressional Medals authorized by Congress.
This placed tremendous demand on the limited staff of Mint engravers at the Philadelphia Mint. Mint officials turned, in an obvious move, to outside artists. What was needed was separate coin or medal designs for each new item. This then, needed to be modeled, rendered into a relief model from clay to plaster, for each side.
An attempt was made to automate that modeling somewhat by accomplishing this with computer technology. A computer savvy sculptor, Joseph Menna, was hired in 2005 to work with this new technology.
But what evolved was not the old method of one talented sculptor designing and modeling his concept in two sides, became instead four artists involved. One for the design of each side and one to model each side!
This move, perhaps in desperation, has resulted in increased mediocrity more than any other. It is the number one cause of mediocrity. An attempt to increase the attractiveness of our nation’s coins has accomplished just the opposite result.
There are subtle ways in which an artist can tie the two sides together with design elements — by repetition, by contrast, by related elements, similar lettering style — a dozen sculptural techniques. These are missing when two different artists are allowed to design separate sides.
With four artists hands and minds involved the result is an even greater mixed bag.
This had an effect on Mint sculptors, where working conditions were not the best in the first place. The work area was described as a “rabbit warren” with work tables chockablock next to each other. The room did not inspire the best creativity. Yet the Mint engravers, trudged on, as best as they could. The moral among the Mint engravers dissipated somewhat.
The second greatest cause of mediocrity is the closeness of multiple artists. This is so evident of factory artists everywhere. It has been explained to me as “artists tend to talk to each other, to look over each other’s shoulder, inspecting each other’s work; in time they begin copying each other, subtly perhaps, unconsciously at best. The result is a homogenized look of all their work.” In time it all looks alike no matter which artist created it originally.
As a medal dealer, handling thousands of medals by dozens of manufacturers,
I began recognizing the work of each manufacturer. Some of this is due to the equipment they used. Much of it, however, was due to similarity of design, even
if signed by different artists. It became a mannerism of that maker, particularly if they had several factory artists.
This has happened in the U.S. Mint engraving room as well. The mint engravers have recognized this condition themselves and have tried to overcome it. I am certain the thought has often crossed their minds: “I would be better off working in my own studio rather than here in this room!”
A third reason for existing mediocrity is compressed time. With increased number of coins and medals to create, the Mint engravers are facing pressing deadlines. It has become, not an atmosphere of creativity, but one of an assembly line. One artist does one function, and passes it on, Another artists adds another function, while two others are doing the same thing. All with the hope this bird will fly when all the parts are brought together.
It seldom does.
Ideally artists should have two weeks just to think about a design, to let it percolate in their conscious and subconscious. They should seek inspiration in a variety of fields, reading, viewing images of related content or subject matter, examining great medallic art. Knowing what has been produced by previous great medallic artists. Asking themselves “What can I do better than what they did?” Let their inner Muse reign free!
While Congress can enact legislation for as many coins and medals as it wishes (and the president signs that legislation) the Engraving Department should be light on its feet to create every one of those, providing models and patterns that can be struck into desired objects by the mint where they are employed.
But remember The U.S. Mint is a government agency. It is bound by bureaucracy. What’s the incentive? Engravers can keep their job for life if they wish. They won’t get paid more for any increased work. Mediocre work is as good as highly creative work. Great medallic art is not encouraged here.
The fourth cause for mediocrity is money. Currently an outside designer is paid $2,500 for an accepted coin design. If they can model it, they get $5,000 more.
But not every artist can create a coin design.
Even worse, most graphic artists attempt to create glyptic coin designs. These are entirely separate art formats. Graphic artists work in two dimensions. Coin and medal artists must work, think – even dream! – in three dimensions.
Not every drawing makes a good model. There are characteristics that make a good bas-relief model that graphic designers are unaware. Some of these can be learned – height and bevel of relief, hide three support points on the reverse, employ texture for contrast – but much of it cannot be taught. It comes with experience in creating relief models to be struck into coins and medals.
But if the seven artists named above are the greatest that America has produced, among the 300 at any one time who have created coins and medals – or the three thousand listed in my databank of American artists – we see how rare this talent really is.
In contrast to athletes who earn seven-figure contracts because they have the ability to perform based on their athletic prowess and talent – not many can do what they do – shouldn’t coin designers be compensated likewise. Not many artists can create great coin and medal designs.
Six things the Mint can do to create great coins and medals.
- Send their engravers home to work in their own studios. Keep on salary, but spend one day a month at the Mint. This day to review work, make assignments, keep up-to-date on latest developments, both within the Mint and within the industry, learn latest technology, a day of inspiration and awareness.
- Name an Art Director, not a Chief Engraver. This person must be an administrator. He should know every aspect of bas-relief art, the mint technology and the capabilities of his staff. He – and this person should be male – should have knowledge of as many outside sculptors as possible who he can commission at his discretion. He should be given power to accept or reject any design or model. He will edit all sketches and models. He must have the temperament to work with artists who have great egos (they should!).
- Hire one Staff Sculptor. He is a backstop sculptor who works full time in that Engraving Room. He (or she) accepts all models, and where necessary make any corrections or alterations demanded by the Art Director. This artist insures a perfect model for the next step of production.
- Eliminate the policy of multiple artists on one coin or medal. Each artist must provide both sides for each item.
- Hire a Staff Art Researcher. This person should have knowledge of picture and image resources to search out needed images for any artist. Seek these images among all sources in ample time for artists to work with. This does not preclude the artist from doing his own image research. She – typically a female researcher –should have knowledge of symbolism as well and provide suggested symbols.
- Establish a policy for adequate artist compensation. A pair of circulating coin models should be compensated at $100,000. A commemorative coin or medal at $50,000.
Such a plan as outlined above will attract great artists, who will, in turn, create great coins and medals.