Get ready to rumble as state gears up to design its new quarter

If you think the debate over Oregon's budget has been contentious, just wait.

Sometime in the spring of 2005, Oregon will become the 33rd state to issue its commemorative quarter under the U.S. Mint's 50 State Quarters Program.

Choosing a design seems simple. Look, after all, at the polite collection of birds, trees and other state icons that decorate the quarters of the other states.

But there's been nothing simple or polite about the experience of other states. Divisions have broken out as states struggle to find one single defining image, a difficult task made even harder with the complicating layers of special commissions, statewide votes and the participation of schoolkids.

Oregon has plenty of social and political divisions already, the same forces that this year produced perhaps the most difficult Legislature ever. Those battles may resurface in the process of deciding what will appear on the Oregon coin.

The state quarter, after all, reveals a lot about how the state sees itself and how it wants the rest of the world to see the state.

Tennessee used a guitar, a fiddle and a trumpet; Georgia, a peach; and Kentucky, a racehorse. The other 21 coins issued as of this month have featured natural resources, agricultural products, historical events, beloved figures, state icons, state birds, state trees, state flowers, state outlines and one geological formation that isn't even there anymore. New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain fell down in May.

What face will Oregon show the rest of the country? No telling yet. But Gov. Ted Kulongoski already is hearing ideas, in particular earlier this month during a walk through downtown Astoria, said Mary Ellen Glynn, his press secretary. Mount Hood. Salmon. Tom McCall. Crater Lake. A woman. A lighthouse. Sacagawea.

'I hope they have the foresight to come up with something that symbolizes the entire state,' said Robert Steinegger, past president of the Willamette Coin Club, a big Portland area organization. 'I can't conceive of the committee coming up with something I don't like, because I love Oregon.'

Glynn said: 'At a time like this, with a lot of bad budget news, this is a good thing to get excited about. And it doesn't cost the state money.'

The Mint does not mandate a specific selection method.

Some states used their arts commission. Some governors decide for themselves. Pennsylvania had a contest. Missouri voted online. Kansas high school students will make their state's final selection. And some, Oregon among them, form a special commission.

Kulongoski is putting the final touches on the 18-member Oregon Commemorative Coin Commission, which will include a high school teacher, a numismatist, a member of an Oregon tribe, a historian, a student, a Republican and a Democrat from both the state Senate and state House, the state treasurer and the governor himself.

Mint methods

Here's how the process works:

The commission will select three to five design concepts, which then will be forwarded to the U.S. Mint. Written form only, please. No drawings. That got too complicated when Mint engravers angered local artists by changing their drawings. So now the Mint accepts only written descriptions of the design concepts. Mint engravers will do all the artwork.

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee then review artwork drafted by the Mint. Three to five artist renderings are then sent back to the governor, who chooses the final design, subject to final approval by the Secretary of the Treasury.

No date has been set for release of the Oregon quarter. The Mint releases five a year, starting in the first week in January, with a new one following every 10 weeks. Oregon's will be the third quarter of 2005, pegging its release for sometime in May.

The program, kicked off by Delaware in 1999, has been enormously popular. It's a hybrid, a rare example of a commemorative coin placed in general circulation, and it helped spark a resurgence in coin collecting, said Mint spokesman Michael White.

The number of coins minted has dropped off since the program started, hitting a high in 2000 with the minting of 1.6 billion Virginia quarters. The minting for the first three issued this year has been around 450 million for each state. But the Mint estimates that 139 million people are collecting the quarters.

Coining controversy

Designs created little controversy when the first five quarters were issued in 1999, said Michele Orzano, senior staff writer for Coin World magazine. But the process grew more complicated as the program gained wider attention. Bigger selection committees. More schoolkids. Greater public involvement. In some states, the process became unwieldy.

'They didn't have any idea how passionate people can become about this,' Orzano said. 'You're not going to make everybody happy.'

And compromise doesn't always produce the most compelling art.

'Most of the designs are boring, timid and cluttered evidence of all that can go wrong when art is created by committee,' wrote Carol Vinzant in Slate, the online magazine.

Some states found that choosing their design stirred up existing state divisions: north against south in California; urban against rural in Illinois; and mountains against ocean in Maine.

California, for example, is struggling to find one single theme to describe its very diverse state. The five finalists are the Golden Gate Bridge, a gold miner, John Muir and Yosemite Valley, waves and the sun, and the giant sequoia. The California quarter is set for a January 2005 release.

In Missouri, whose coin was issued just last week, a furor erupted when Mint engravers altered the design chosen by a statewide vote. Paul Jackson, a Columbia, Mo., artist, submitted a depiction of Lewis and Clark paddling a canoe with the Gateway Arch in the background. In the hands of the engraver, though, the canoe became a keelboat, the two men became seven and the arch made them look as if they were paddling a basket. That's when the Mint banned submission of actual drawings by the states.

Mind the designer

Fitting all that political baggage onto a .95-inch coin isn't easy, said Thomas D. Rogers Sr., who designed the South Carolina, Maryland and Massachusetts quarters as well as the picture of the eagle on the back side of the Sacagawea dollar coin. Rogers, now retired and a resident of Long Beach, Wash., said you need a clear, concise image with good 'coinability' a word that describes the technical ability of a design to come out well in the minting process.

'You're dealing with a very small palette, and it's hard to come up with one of these that really exemplifies the state and that everybody's going to say, 'That's our state.' '

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