On Wednesday, October 18, 2017 , I had the pleasure of attending my first Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee meeting (on the phone, since I live in Atlanta and not in Washington). As a relative novice to the world of coin design, I understand the apprehension most collectors feel when first putting themselves into the fray with much more experienced numismatists and artists. While I went in with several assumptions about the paralyzing bureaucracy that gets associated with the formation of committees, I found that my initial assessments were not only incorrect, but also a misconception that formed due to my own inexperience. What I witnessed was a very spirited and illuminating discussion that gives other novices like myself an inside glimpse into the personalities , complexity, and intrigue that go into the design of just a few coins. The following is a documentation of my experience, and I hope that my story encourages fellow collectors and hobbyists (whether expert or novice ) to participate more directly in the design processes that take place in Washington.
At 9:02 a.m. the meeting commenced with a unanimous approval of the previous meeting’s minutes, and the discussion transitioned to the subject of the designs for the upcoming 2019 Apollo 11 50th Anniversary commemorative coins. While the convex reverse of the coin was previously determined by Congress (it must be a derivative of the famous photograph of astronaut Buzz Aldrin while he was on the moon), the concave obverse is to be decided based upon submissions from everyday people who participated in a national public design competition — of which 18 final drawings made it to the CCAC. Member Dr. Herman Viola stated that while he was “quite excited about the Apollo program” when he had watched the 1969 coverage of the mission aboard a Navy ship, he was overall disappointed with the designs that were submitted to the CCAC. Member Donald Scarinci echoed a similar sentiment, stating that “If there were a mechanism to reject all of the designs, I would.”
However, while Viola liked the designs submitted by artists 254, 294, and 343, Scarinci strongly disliked 254 due to its throwback to a common misconception during the Apollo 11 launch that you could see people on the moon by looking through a pair of binoculars. There were quite a few chuckles in the room when he also mentioned that people at the time did a lot of other silly things like “hiding under desks to protect themselves from a nuclear bomb” and that he would not necessarily like to see those behaviors immortalized on American coinage either.
Member Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was not so affronted by 254’s design with the binoculars, as he stated that “everybody in the West Indies had binoculars and telescopes” when he had watched the event with his family. It was a joyous event, he said, that got people talking with each other in a way rarely seen. CCAC member Dennis Tucker also praised 254 since it had been the only submission to incorporate a woman into the design. ⤵️
While I was initially taken aback by the “firing squad” feel of the meeting, it became rapidly apparent that I was just feeling the heat from the passion expressed by the members who held a great deal of reverence for the significance of the Apollo 11 mission, with Donald Scarinci memorably stating that “the greatest achievement in the history of the United States needs great coins.”
Member Mike Moran, author of Striking Change, additionally noted that scaleability was an issue that the submissions generally failed to take into account, citing 265 as an example. He elucidated that while 265 would look good on a $5 gold coin, it would not work on a 3-inch silver coin. Rather than seeing this as a failure of the people who submitted the drawings, Moran felt that it was more a failure of the legislation, which he said didn’t properly inform the artists and therefore “puts us in a box.” Donald Scarinci in a similar vein stressed that the designs did not “take advantage” of the convex/concave nature of the coin. Committee Chair Mary Lannin called the Apollo 11 mission “the most important event in my lifetime for science and exploration” and saw 254 in a different light, calling it clever for its inclusion of binary code with the binoculars in the design. She also stated the significance of the footprint in 265, and that nobody could “mistake what it is and what it meant.”
Member Heidi Wastweet also concurred with the frustration felt by other members when she said, “We are looking at designs for coins, not judging drawings.” She was drawn to design 167 because it showed the contributions of the scientists and the mathematicians that ultimately led to the successful moon landing and did not simply “repeat the story” of the reverse as 265 had done.
She shared a similar sentiment for 328, but unlike 167, it “lacked a human element,” in her words. Member Tom Uram mentioned that former CCAC member Mike Olsen did a lot of “heavy lifting” in the legislation. He noted that the jury panel (three members of the CCAC, three members of the Commission of Fine Arts, and a chairing member of the Treasury Department) had narrowed down 200 portfolios to 20. He also stressed the importance of communicating the CCAC’s needs to the public. Uram said that design 265 was a good “starting point.” Member Erik Jansen took time to thank the artists for their submissions and stated that the Mint should let Congress know that in the future, public artists need to think about their designs in a three-dimensional sense. Design 265 was also liked by member Jeanne Stevens-Sollman, who stated, “This is the one we have to go with.”
In the midst of all this serious discussion, a moment of levity occurred when several members referred to 318’s design as “creepy Kennedy” or “ghost Kennedy,” due to the faded gray design and heavy dark circles that appear under the president’s eyes. It was at this moment that I spat my coffee all over my desk and unprofessionally lost my composure, which abruptly shifted to a state of panic when I checked my phone to make sure that it was still on mute. It was, but even had it not been, everyone else in the room was chuckling as well over the remarks.
After my pulse returned to normal, the end of the discussion about the 2019 Apollo 11 Commemorative designs was approaching, and it became apparent that the two submissions which were most likely to be recommended to the Secretary of the Treasury were 167 and 265 — the former for its tasteful inclusion of the many contributions that others made to the success of Buzz Aldrin’s landing and the latter for its simplicity and relative coinability compared to the others. After a short break in which the members talked among themselves, the time then came to discuss the foundation for the 2020–2021 America the Beautiful quarters.
The discussion of the upcoming quarters was led by April Stafford, director of the Mint’s Office of Design Management, who read a detailed description of the sites to be honored into the record. The first was the National Park of American Samoa, which is located 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii and provides a unique experience to visitors since much of it is underwater. Next was the Weir Farm National Historic Site, located in Connecticut, a major site for the Impressionist movement at the turn of the 19th century. This was followed by Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This one particularly drew the attention of the committee members due to the recent hurricanes in the region. The next two national parks followed a theme of environmental conservation and included Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Vermont and Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas. The final site discussed for the upcoming America the Beautiful quarters was Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, which garnered some lively discussion as well due to the idea of Black military heroes having to fight two wars—one overseas and the other at home. The CCAC’s members had studied these sites before the meeting, and they gave the Mint’s artists their advice and guidance on ways they might approach the coins’ designs.
At 12:50 p.m. the meeting was adjourned, and I turned off my cell phone to reflect on my thoughts and notes. Around 4:30 p.m. the same day, I called CCAC member Dennis Tucker, who answered my questions about the meeting which had taken place just hours earlier. He was informative and approachable and our discussion very productive. I asked why the members had seemed so frustrated about the Apollo 11 designs, to which he replied that part of it was more frustration “about the legislation than the artists’ designs.” I understood why designing modern United States coinage appears (to me) to be at a standstill at the moment, at least for this particular commemorative program.
After my time listening to the deliberations of the CCAC and discussing the meeting with member Dennis Tucker, I came to the conclusion that perhaps an initial middle-ground solution to the issue of coin designs submitted by the public could be that Congress drafts new legislation that allows for public text submissions for coin designs rather than drawings. By doing this, the public would still be allowed to participate directly in the design process without limiting professional artists to a few drawings which do not always take into account the many factors that go into the sculpting of real coins. Textual descriptions for what the public would like to see in coins would be just enough to give the artists fresh ideas to work with without pigeonholing them into having to sculpt a coin based on a drawing submitted by someone who may not be familiar with ensuring that their design translates well onto an actual coin. Even drawings that are magnificent and breathtaking may end up looking terrible on a finished coin if the proper caution is not exercised on the drawing board first. The final designs created by professional artists which were based on publically submitted text descriptions could then be reviewed by the CCAC, voted upon, and finally be recommended to the Secretary of the Treasury.
What do you think? Does this solution to our current predicament sound reasonable, or are there other ways the public can interact with the CCAC and the Mint to produce some truly spectacular modern coins?