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A Controversy Is Coined Over Series of Quarters

September 02, 2002|LINDA HALES | WASHINGTON POST

It started out as a two-bit tussle out on the Great Plains. But now the design of the 2003 Missouri quarter has become a cause celebre on the sidewalk outside the Treasury Department.

Missouri artist Paul Jackson held aloft a 4-foot, quarter-shaped placard there recently in a protest he calls Quartergate. The pale gray watercolor showed 19th century explorers Lewis and Clark paddling a canoe down a river, with the St. Louis Gateway Arch in the background. The design was one he offered up for his state's coin, which will be the 24th collectible in the U.S. Mint's commemorative series. That series began in 1999 and continues through 2008.

Jackson, 34, thought he had produced a winner after he entered it in what turned out to be a nonbinding contest sponsored by Missouri First Lady Lori Hauser Holden in 2001. Missourians voted 2 to 1 for his design, Jackson says, and it was among five finalists sent by Gov. Bob Holden to Washington more than a year ago. But any celebration was short-lived.

As Jackson and other artists across the country have discovered, the Mint is under no obligation to use or even honor the artistic integrity of such submis- sions. Under the provisions of the 50 State Quarters program, the Mint asks state governors to drum up ideas in the forum or contest of their choosing. But government engravers alter and recompose the concepts pretty much as they please. And they put their own initials on the completed work.

"The Mint is a sovereign entity," Jackson says. "They answer to no one."

That's how Maine's magnificent Mount Katahdin was reduced to a molehill on that state's quarter, also due out next year. That design was superseded by a coastal scene, but Maine's prized three-masted windjammer, Victory Chimes, was turned into a two-master that looked suspiciously like the Pride of Baltimore. That's also how, in the still-unfinished selection process for Missouri, Jackson's canoe was turned into a clunkier keelboat carrying five more people. And the arch was manipulated in such a way that the drawing looked like seven men in a basket.

Jackson, who runs an art gallery in Columbia, Mo., is appalled at such artistic tampering. "We want to bring public attention to what the Mint is doing with state quarters," he says. "The goal for artists and schoolchildren is to have your artwork represent your state pride on the back of your quarter."

He and colleague Scott Miller, 35, a Columbia Web designer, have taken their campaign on the road. With the support of nine artists in six states, they are pressing not just for Jackson's design, which they had printed on quarter-size stickers, but also for the larger issue of "state artists for state quarters."

The Mint says Jackson is simply confused about the process. It says it strives for collaboration. Governors are asked to solicit concepts or even written themes. A handful are submitted to the Mint, which turns them into "original, coinable and appropriate designs." That leaves the Mint free to use an artist's work as inspiration only. The Mint is required to run its versions by the Commission on Fine Arts and a Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee. The Treasury secretary rules twice--before and after governors sign off on what the Mint sends forward.

"Artists are being blindsided by the Mint's staff," complains Charles Atherton, secretary of the fine arts commission. He is disturbed that the commission never gets to see the artists' original work and has resorted to checking numismatic Web sites to find out what the artists produced. Even after the commission weighs in, he notes, changes have intruded on whatever artistry remained.

"There are some serious artists involved in this," Atherton says, "It's pretty good stuff. The government ought to respect the original artists' integrity when they can."

Nevertheless, he did not approve of Jackson's design. The arch was just right, but the canoe was all wrong, he says. But so was the Mint's keel, which would not have plied the Mississippi River.

Jackson is convinced that "something will happen" as a result of his campaign. In fact, the process for 2004 was altered in February after the Missouri controversy erupted. A Mint spokesman says that for that year's quarters, governors will be asked to provide one to five "acceptable finished designs." If the Mint determines that they are coinable, the state will be allowed to forward them to the fine arts commission, the citizens' group and eventually the Treasury secretary.

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