Tribute to Gary Marks: “It’s All about the Art”
On October 8, 2015, after the vote on the 2016 Lions Club Commemorative coin, I grabbed Gary Marks by the hand.
I looked him in the eye and thanked him for his service on the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) on behalf of all Americans who may never know about the paradigm shift that occurred during his Chairmanship.
I was expressing my personal sadness at losing regular contact with someone I have come to know as a friend over the last eight years. But I was also recognizing the passage of an era—the end of a dark period at the United States Mint and the start of a new, exciting and creative period. Gary Marks was the Chairman of the CCAC during that transition and without his stewardship, it might never have happened.
Events at the United States Mint hit their low point around 2010. Artistic decisions were being made by the Mint’s Design Review Committee, which consisted of people who had no formal or informal training in art. In fact, no one on the committee particularly liked art, visited art galleries or read much about coins or medals. The group was driven by the mints manufacturing schedule and marketing demands. The Design Review Committee was nothing more than a marketing and manufacturing committee.
There was a serious disconnect between statements that came from the Director of the Mint and the actions of the Mint staff. In some instances, it was just embarrassing. But more often, the conflicts contributed to an ever-worsening working relationship among people at the Mint. The low morale almost completely squelched creativity. If a good coin design happened to emerge during that period, it was likely an accident.
Since the Mint recommends the appointment of all but four members of the CCAC, there were few of us at the meetings who would object to the processes happening at the Mint. It took courage and a passion for art for people to be willing to speak out or be too critical of a particular set of designs or a Mint procedure. But eventually, Gary and others began to not only lend support to my criticisms, but also to take the lead.
By 2010, the CCAC was in full rebellion. Much of what happened behind the scenes was never made public, but the equivalent of a Declaration of Independence was written at the summer CCAC meeting held at the American Numismatic Association headquarters in Colorado Springs. That meeting resulted in the formation of a subcommittee to study the problems at the Mint and make recommendations for improvement. The Committee’s recommendations became known as the “Blueprint for Advancing Artistic Creativity and Excellence in United States Coins and Medals,” and were adopted as the recommendation of the full CCAC in early 2011.
The Blueprint was a game changer at the Mint. Rosie Rios, Treasurer of the United States, and Richard Peterson, Acting Mint Director worked tirelessly to change the status quo at the Mint and to implement the Blueprint. Staff changes were made and the dreaded Design Review Committee was disbanded. The artists were moved out of their small, windowless cubicles and into an atelier-style space with windows and light at the Philadelphia Mint. Design decisions moved away from the total control by sales and marketing. A new emphasis on the artists and the engravers emerged, and the role of the CCAC was expanded to provide input on design themes prior to the development of designs.
The most significant change, however, was in the relationship between the Mint and the CCAC. Contentiousness was replaced by cordiality. Instead of rushing through design approvals merely to fulfill a statutory obligation, the Mint began to view the CCAC both as a fountain of fresh ideas from a cross section of America and as a focus group for the broader community of Americans who care about the design of the coins they carry. Perhaps for the first time since the legislation was drafted, the CCAC now performs the role that Congress intended it to perform.
The role that Gary Marks played in all of this was a giant one. From the events leading up to the Blueprint to its implementation, and right up to his final day on the CCAC last week, he took every opportunity to reminded everyone that, “it’s all about the art.” Gary Marks will long be remembered for the changes he helped make for this to become a reality at the United States Mint.
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