When the U.S. Mint launched its 50 States Quarters series in 1999, it seemed to have something irresistible: Give each state its own quarter, and have a local artist come up with a design for the "tails" side reflecting that state's history.
Three years into the program, Mint spokesman Michael White declares it a success, noting that an estimated 139 million Americans collect the commemorative quarters. "This is teaching history through coinage," White said. "A lot of kids, for instance, can learn about the heritage of their state."
But, according to Paul Jackson, children and others may well be learning it wrong.
Jackson, an award-winning painter known in Missouri as a steward of the state's heritage, says that the way the federal government chooses the state quarter designs causes historical inaccuracies and is void of honesty.
"The U.S. Mint is perpetrating out-and-out fraud in this program," he says. "They're lying to artists, to kids and to the American people."
Jackson drove east this week to voice his outrage, staging a variety of impish stunts, including rolling a 4-foot-high quarter down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, in hopes of triggering a Congressional investigation of the Mint program. He stayed in Washington for two days, paying for everything with quarters, visited the Inner Harbor for an evening, then left for Philadelphia and New York.
The Mint program allows each state to choose its own way of developing a design for its quarter. In Missouri, Gov. Bob Holden's office chose to sponsor a statewide contest and anyone, including schoolchildren, could enter. More than 3,300 people did, including about 2,500 children and Jackson, 34, a Columbia, Mo., resident.
Jackson's entry, subtle in its shadings, places the western explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in a canoe before the St. Louis Arch, unofficially known as "Gateway to the West." "I wanted to honor Missouri's riverways and its spirit of exploration," says Jackson, a native of Mississippi who has lived in his adopted state for nearly half his life.
The governor's office then had the Missouri Arts Commission choose 24 designs. The state placed all the images online so interested Missourians could vote on them.
More than 180,000 people voted - 80,000 for Jackson's work. The design was among five sent to the Mint for approval.
According to rules posted on its Web site, the Mint would accept, revise or reject between three and five designs from each state, based on "coinability" and "historical accuracy." Two independent federal agencies, the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) and the Citizens' Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee (CCCAC), would weigh in heavily.
To Jackson's shock, the Mint rejected his design.
"That was our first evidence that something was wrong," he says. "It launched this 5 1/2 -month investigation we're on. [Mint spokesmen] lie and contradict themselves so often I had to start taping my phone conversations" with them. "That's legal in Missouri. But they didn't like it much."
White, the Mint spokesman, says he regrets any confusion the program may have caused.
In fact, the workings of the Mint are shadowy. Only Jackson's mulishness has shown, for instance, that the CFA and CCCAC never see the original designs submitted by the states. Instead, the Mint's engravers adapt every design first, then send it over for review.
"We've asked the Mint time and time again to send us the originals," says Jim Atherton, a CFA official. "They never do. I don't know why. Here we ask American citizens to invest time, energy and artistic talent, without pay, to create these works, and the Mint takes substantial liberties interpreting them." Atherton never saw Jackson's original design until it appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.
"In my opinion," Atherton says, "that's extremely dishonest. These artists have every right to be mad as hell."
Jackson is, and he's not the only one. The way Mint engravers "translated" his work for a model, he says, "was sabotage. It's 300 percent different from the original. Common sense tells you that. It looks like an Easter basket with the Arch for a handle. If I'd seen that design, I'd have ruled it out too."
Needs to be `coinable'
Mint spokesmen White and Doug Hecox say their bureau altered Jackson's image because of historical inaccuracies and elements that weren't "coinable" on a mass scale.
Placing Lewis and Clark, who set forth from Missouri in 1804, with the Arch, completed in 1966, was anachronistic, they say. In addition, the Mint plans to create a commemorative dollar featuring Lewis and Clark in 2004 and wants to avoid confusion with the Missouri quarter.