National Treasures: The US Mint's Artists
A month or so ago, I read an article in The New Yorker on that ever-greenest of topics - whither the penny - which I have already posted on. Somewhat incidental to the article, writer David Owen mentioned that, on a trip to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, he met a "young staff artist."
Well, I know that in the last few years they've redesigned our bills, such that Ben Franklin now looks like a cartoon version of himself, and Andrew Jackson now looks just like a guy I used to work with. And the Jefferson nickel got a recent facelift. Plus there are all those wonderful state coins that have been coming out the past few years.
But it got me thinking about just how many artists are in the employ of the Mint.
And it turns out that there are more than anyone other than a coin collector might think.
From the US Mint's site, I learned (among other things) that they employ:
...an elite team of sculptor-engravers who are entrusted with creating designs and sculptural models for the production of the Nation’s coins and medals.
At present, the Mint is "entrusting" seven permanent sculptor-engravers, and also uses the work of others through something called the Artistic Infusion Program (AIP), which:
...provides the Nation’s artists the opportunity to contribute beautiful designs to coins that will be enjoyed by all Americans.
AIP's current "refined pool of talented American artists" are the folks that brought us the designs for the state quarters, as well as for the Presidential $1 Coin Program - a program I was not aware of, let alone being aware of the "corresponding First Spouse Gold Coin Program."
I'm all for employment opportunities for artists, not to mention writers and musicians. Come the twenty-first century's version of The Great Depression - when the American economic tiers will consist of a narrow elite (celebrities, hedge fund managers, and reality show producers); a slightly more populated class of professionals and artisans who support the top tier and run the systems that keep the whole shebang afloat; Wal-Mart greeters, happy to have any job; and survivalists, who get by on a combination of the dole, barter, casual employment, and selling on eBay whatever remains of the crap they accumulated before The Great Depression - I hope that the government will re-institute the WPA. We can then have all kinds of cool public art of the kind you see in cool public buildings that were decorated during The Original - and still the Greatest - Depression. I hope there are still libraries and post offices to decorate, but I maybe by then no one will read and no one will send mail.
But if there's another WPA, we will get to read all kinds of cool state guidebooks, like the ones that got written by struggling writers in the 1930's. I hope that those books won't all read the same - that every state will fall into one of two categories: those where every square inch is covered with suburban sprawl and big-box stores ; and those where every square inch is covered with with robot-run agribusinesses, and where a small "real population" - say, 1000 voters - is kept intact for the sole purpose of electing two (Republican) senators to counterbalance the wild voting of those crazed coastal states.
No, it would be nice to see what the current crop of writers would have to say about the states. And now that we have 50 states, we'll have two more writers to employ than we did way back when there were only 48 states.
(Let's hope that by then we will not have developed a canon consisting entirely of txt msg. OMG Texas ROFL.)
Back to the Mint, and their list of circulating coins, which is larger than you might think.
I knew about the state quarters. In fact, I just looked in my overcrammed wallet and found, in addition to a bunch of old style quarters, I found nine state quarters, which are mostly kind of cool, thanks to the work of our AIP artists and all those sculptor-engravers. Of the ones I had, I especially liked Montana's (cattle skull) and Wyoming's (cowboy on a bucking bronco). Sentimentally, I also like New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain/Old Stone Face, which collapsed a few years back. I'm not that enamored of Idaho's - an eagle (?) with the words "In Perpetua", which I assume means that, even if their population goes to 1,000 they will continue to send two (Republican) senators to Washington forever. Although maybe not this year.
I also have a few oldies like the Roosevelt dime and the Lincoln penny. And, while I knew that there was a new nickel, I was surprised to find that there are three different nickels in circulation, and that I was holding all three.
All three have Jefferson on the front. Two have Monticello on the reverse. And one has a buffalo on the back - kind of like the olden buffalo nickel. (This must be from the "Westward Journey Nickel Series". I'll have to start looking more carefully at my coins.)
But let's face it, circulating coins alone can't keep all those sculptor- engraver and AIP artists busy. What keeps 'em going is the raft of commemorative coins.
Who knew there was a Little Rock Central High Desegregation Silver Dollar. Or a 400th anniversary of Jamestown coin?
We've got coins for Chief Justice Marshall. The 230th anniversary of the Marine Corps. (Semper fi, and all that, but isn't 230 kind of an odd-ball anniversary to celebrate? Couldn't they have waited another twenty years? For the most part the Mint favors 50, 100, 200, and 400 - Columbus - anniversaries.)
Apparently, the Mint and coin collectors really like buffalos, as they seem to be a recurring theme.
Dolley Madison got her own commemorative coin, which sems to be separate from the First Spouse collection. Why is that? Wouldn't Eleanor Roosevelt or Abigail Adams make more worthy choices? Or Edith Wilson who may have been running the country after Woodrow took ill.
I'm guessing that all these commemorative coins are money makers, and that the Mint makes, well, a mint on them.
Even if they don't, it seems to me that whatever we pay our sculptors-engravers may be more worthwhile than some of the other things the government spends money on.