This post was updated on Feb. 4 at 8:10 a.m. to add a missing hyperlink.
As an intermediate step between parts 1 and 2 of “A Vision of Liberty for a Modern Nation,” it seems helpful to take a look at the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), which featured prominently in part 1. This post, although lengthy, will be looking at three simple questions: What exactly is the CCAC’s role? What qualifies the current committee to perform that role? And what aesthetic ideals do they look for in a coin’s prospective design?
Note that, although this is a lengthy blog post, it isn’t an essay, and the reader won’t miss out on anything by skipping ahead or doubling back to different points of interest. Feel free to jump around—but be sure not to miss the links to the PDFs in the final section.
What the CCAC Does
The CCAC, established by an act of Congress in 2003, is one of two bodies that advise the Secretary of the Treasury on the themes and designs for all U.S. coins and medals. The other body is the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), which advises the president, Congress, and others on “designs proposed for memorials, coins, medals, and new or renovated government buildings, as well as privately owned properties in certain areas of Washington.”
The CCAC’s focus is much narrower: “any theme or design proposals relating to circulating coinage, bullion coinage, Congressional Gold Medals, and national and other medals.” The CCAC advises the Secretary on “events, persons, or places to be commemorated by the issuance of commemorative coins,” and makes recommendations on the mintage levels for those coins. Although the CCAC’s recommendations are taken very seriously, the Secretary is not bound by the committee’s advice.
Current CCAC Members
The Secretary appoints the 11 members, whose roles and qualifications are defined by Public Law 108-15. These members, and their qualifications, are as follows. (The bios are condensed from the more in-depth versions on the CCAC website; any errors are my own).
Member Specially Qualified as a Numismatic Curator
Robert Hoge—Curator of North American Coins and Currency for the American Numismatic Society (ANS). Former curator of the American Numismatic Association (ANA) Money Museum, manager of the ANA’s Authentication Bureau, and columnist / contributing editor for The Numismatist. Member of numerous professional numismatic and museological organizations; has been a guest on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and The History Detectives.
Member Specially Qualified in Medallic Arts / Sculpture
Heidi Wastweet—American medalist and sculptor. Has produced more than 1,000 coins, medals, tokens, and rare-coin replicas in conjunction with a wide variety of private mints. Former chief engraver for Sunshine Mint and lead designer/sculptor for Global Mint. Former treasurer of the American Medallic Sculpture Association; current president and founder of Seattle Sculpture Guild as well as a member of the Federation Internationale de la Medaille (FIDEM). Has been included in Coin World and COINage magazine; exhibits non-commission work regularly, including the National Sculpture Society in New York and the Norwegian Heritage Museum in Washington.
Member Specially Qualified in American History
Dr. Herman Viola—Curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution. Former director of both the National Museum of Natural History’s Quincentenary Programs and the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives. Former staff member at the National Archives (where he launched the prize-winning quarterly Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives) and archivist for the National Historical Records and Publications Commission. Consultant to numerous museums and educational organizations, and an active educator who has taught at several universities. Author or co-author of numerous history books, including Warriors in Uniform: The Legacy of American Indian Heroism; Warrior Artists; and Diplomats in Buckskin: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City.
Member Specially Qualified in Numismatics
Dennis Tucker—Publisher at Whitman Publishing (parent company of Mint News Blog), specializing in books on numismatics, banking and financial history, and American history. Life Member of the ANA; past governor of the Token and Medal Society. Author of American Gold and Silver: U.S. Mint Collector and Investor Coins and Medals, Bicentennial to Date. Contributor to The Numismatist, Coin World, Numismatic News, COINage, and Coins Magazine, and the journals of the Token and Medal Society, the Civil War Token Society, the Barber Coin Collectors Society, and the Numismatic Bibliomania Society. Recipient of the Extraordinary Merit Award from the Numismatic Literary Guild; the Forrest Daniel Award for Literary Excellence from the Society of Paper Money Collectors; the silver medal of the Original Hobo Nickel Society; and the Gloria Peters Literary Award from Women in Numismatics.
Members Representative of the General Public
Erik Jansen—C.E.O. and co-founder of a medical device firm in Mercer Island, Washington. Has a long history of successful nonprofit and philanthropic work, especially in the area of education. A lifelong coin collector with a deep knowledge of coinage and many of the numismatic-related issues facing the CCAC and the United States Mint.
Jeanne Stevens-Sollman—A leading medallic sculptor, with work exhibited throughout the United States and in the collections of museums throughout the United States and Europe, as well as in numerous private collections. Current president of the American Medallic Sculpture Association and U.S. vice delegate to FIDEM. Recipient of the ANA’s Award of Excellence in Medallic Sculpture.
Steve Roach—Independent appraiser and consultant focusing on rare coins and fine art. Certified member (and a board member) of the International Society of Appraisers. Former editor-in-chief of Coin World, and current editor-at-large. Formerly served as a professional coin grader, coin wholesaler, and paintings specialist at an international auction house. Also served on the Michigan State Quarter Commission.
Members Recommended by Congressional Leaders
Thomas Uram—Recommended by the Speaker of the House. A 30-year veteran of the financial services industry. Life Member of the ANA. Former president of the George Washington Numismatic Association. Member of Western Pennsylvania Numismatic Society, Central States Numismatic Association, Florida United Numismatists, the Sphinx Society, the North Hills Coin Club, and the South Hills Coin Club. Life member and current president of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatics.
Mary Lannin—Recommended by the minority leader of the House. Freelance numismatic editor; former public-television producer/director; former California winery owner and representative. Life member of the ANA and ANS; member of the Royal Numismatic Society, the Swiss Numismatic Society, the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society, the Pacific Coast Numismatic Society, and the New York Numismatic Club, among others.
Donald Scarinci—Recommended by the Senate majority leader. Attorney and senior partner at Scarinci Hollenbeck, LLC. Constitutional-law blog editor; author of the books David Brearley and the Making of the U.S. Constitution, Redistricting by Commission in the United States, and The Krause Coin of the Year. Fellow member of the ANS; life member of the ANA. Serves on the committees for the J. Sanford Saltus Award and the Krause Coin of the Year Award.
Mike Moran—Recommended by the Senate minority leader. Numismatic author, lecturer, and researcher. Recipient of the ANA’s Heath Literary Award. Author of Striking Change: The Great Artistic Collaboration of Theodore Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens (winner of the PNG’s Robert Friedberg Award) and 1849: The Philadelphia Mint Strikes Gold. Chair of the advisory board of the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky.
The CCAC’s Design Criteria
While it’s nice to know the committee members are highly qualified rather than random political appointees, what most people really want to know is, how do they make their decisions? What are they thinking when they choose one obverse design over another?
“A Blueprint for Advancing Artistic Creativity and Excellence in United States Coins and Medals” is a special report of the CCAC that can be downloaded as a PDF file. It explains much about where the Mint’s design process once was, and where the CCAC is helping it to go. In the introduction, the report tells the story of how, in 2007, Director Edmund Moy expressed a desire “to spark a neo-renaissance for coin design and achieve a new level of design excellence.” As quoted in the document, Mr. Moy said, “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.”
With this in mind, the director, the CCAC, and the CFA scrutinized the workings of the Mint and of the design-selection process. In the words of a CFA letter, the quality of coin designs was “embarrassingly low, both in the often amateurish character of the artwork and in generally poor compositions”—a statement the CCAC agreed with.
Thus, in July 2010, a new scoring system devised by the CCAC required each design to receive a minimum 50% score before it could be considered for recommendation. At the time of the “Blueprint” report, the CCAC had reviewed 128 designs; to their alarm (but not, perhaps, their surprise), only 18 of those designs rated the minimum 50% score.
The CCAC formed the Subcommittee on Coin Design Excellence, whose purpose was “to develop a comprehensive set of recommendations addressing design quality to the Secretary of the Treasury regarding all future theme and design proposals relating to circulating coinage, bullion coinage, commemorative coinage, congressional gold medals and national and other medals produced by the Secretary of the Treasury in accordance with section 5111 of title 31, United States Code.” In addition to forming the subcommittee, the CCAC’s chairman, Gary Marks, appointed Heidi Wastweet (see her earlier bio) to work with committee members “to develop a visual definition of design excellence.”
This blog post, which is already quite long enough, won’t go into the details of the subcommittee’s findings, but they are quite interesting. (A stifling creative environment for the artists was one unsurprising discovery.) The PDF covers the findings and recommendations in detail; section 4.3, “Recommendations for United States Mint Sculptor-Engravers and AIP,” is especially interesting.
What I’d like to focus on here is this “visual definition of design excellence,” which Wastweet and Marks set forth in a 2014 report called “How to Make Friends and Influence the Committee (a.k.a. How to Get Picked).” The 20-page document is simple and straightforward. It begins with a list of “Design Aspects We Look For,” which are:
- Texture and pattern
- Thoughtfully balanced negative spaces
- Ethnic diversity
- Details yes, overcrowding no
- Creative perspective and atmospheric perspective
- Integrated text
- Clear typestyles
- Clarity of message
- Subtlety, not literalism or storyboard
- Relevancy of obverse to reverse
- Designs, not pictures
- Fluidity of line
- Edge variety
In keeping with the visual orientation of artists, this is not a text-heavy document. Each bullet point gets one page, and is illustrated with examples from around the world. The prospective artist can flip through and get a sense of what the committee is looking for in a single glance. An “American Numismatic Iconography” is included at the end, for designers who might need a refresher: oak leaves represent strength; fasces represent civil government; and so on.
All the design elements and their examples are worth studying, and they’ll inform the way you look at all coins going forward. Four, however, will be especially relevant to part 2 of “A Vision of Liberty.” The first is “clarity of message.” The three examples are spot-on. You don’t need to know anything about coins or history to know the one at upper left concerns a book or author, the one at right references the coming of peace and/or freedom to a city (and probably a European one, by the style of the architecture), and the one at the lower left is telling a story about some guy in antiquity getting into trouble with a whale.
The second element is “details yes, overcrowding no.” Both coins pack a tremendous amount of detail and story into a tiny, round space, yet on both of them, there’s plenty of empty space. Here, the issue is as much about which details to omit as which ones to include.
The third and fourth are related, but they’re not the same thing (although they do overlap a bit). With a “symbol,” one image represents another—for example, the torch represents remembrance. With an “allegory,” multiple symbols come together to represent a larger concept. In the “symbolism” examples, the 9/11 commemorative contains both the symbol of the torch, and an allegory of American remembrance (Liberty + torch). In the “allegory” examples, Adolph Weinman’s eagle symbolizes strength, while the twisted pine sapling symbolizes a young America; taken together, they form an allegory of the young, powerful nation.