When St. Petersburg artist Steven Kenny replied to a U.S. Mint call for artists, he half-expected to be ignored. That’s how these things usually go, Kenny tells me.
“You respond to a bunch of calls and most of them don’t reply back.”
He’d kind of already forgotten about it by the time he received his official acceptance into the U.S. Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program via email.
“I can now officially announce that I have been selected to be a participating artist in the United States Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program (AIP),” Kenny announced on Facebook. “Of the 437 applicants, 27 were chosen.”
The Artistic Infusion Program, or AIP for short, was established in 2003 to recruit the best American artists to develop new coin designs in collaboration with U.S. Mint staff. According to a 2018 call for artists, the U.S. Mint looks for “artists who can bring innovative perspectives and utilize symbolism in their work to clearly and evocatively convey subjects and themes.” They encourage anyone with experience in graphic design, sculpture, engraving, drawing, painting, or other visual arts to apply, regardless of whether they have experience with coins or not.
One of Kenny’s favorite artists and coin designers, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was a sculptor. “I remember when I was living in New York City, he had a lot of sculptures around the city,” Kenny says. “I would see them every now and then, and I was always really impressed. His stuff was never as static-looking as the other sculptors’. His things always seemed to have some sort of movement to them.”
Kenny is known locally as a surrealist painter. He’s had solo exhibitions at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, The Dunedin Fine Art Center, ARTicles Gallery in St. Pete and more. The name might not mean much outside of the art community, but Steven Kenny is one of the most talented and influential artists currently living in the Tampa Bay area. Like so many of the AIP artists that came before him, Kenny has never designed for coins.
By recruiting outside artists with different expertise, the U.S. Mint hopes to bring fresh ideas and designs to U.S. currency and collectibles. “Kids today, I don’t think they really have much interest in [coins],” says Kenny, “so they’re trying to make a lot of these, in one way or another, appeal to young people to get them collecting coins again.”
AIP artists designed several 50 state and other America the Beautiful quarters for the U.S. Mint in the 21st century. I remember when the state quarters first came out in 1999; whenever a cashier handed me my change, I’d flip the quarters over to see what new design might be on the other side. “I remember those coming out too,” says Kenny. “I think it was the first time they ever did the same coin with a different back on it, and yeah, you’d flip it over to see which state it was from.”
The response to these early AIP programs was overwhelmingly positive. “After a lapse of more than 30 years, coin-collecting folders have once again become a common sight in retail stores, as everyone jumps on the bandwagon,” writes David W. Lange in his 2006 tome, History of the U.S. Mint and its Coinage.
When the state quarters program ended in 2008, U.S. Mint Director Ed Moy declared it the most successful coin program in U.S. history. Almost half of all Americans collected the quarters, according to a U.S. Mint survey, generating an estimated $3.8 billion in government profits.
Given that program's success, it probably wasn’t difficult for the U.S. Mint to convince Congress to approve a similar program, the America the Beautiful quarters program, in 2008. Each America the Beautiful quarter features, or is set to feature, a National Park or Monument. The new program launched in 2010 and will continue through 2021.
No word yet if Kenny will be participating in the America the Beautiful program or one of the other AIP programs — the U.S. Mint is very hush-hush about these things. Kenny recently attended a four-day symposium in D.C. where U.S. Mint staff discussed what makes a good coin design with AIP recruits. “They kept stressing that simplicity is much better than overloading them with too much detail,” says Kenny, “because when they get shrunken down, all that detail sort of blends together.”
Good coin design is more than just minimizing details. Novelty is just as important, if not more so. After looking at several historical coin designs during the symposium, Kenny says, “I tended to like the stranger ones… it’s striking when you see a coin that’s so different from anything you’ve seen before. There’s one — I think it has to do with one of the Apollo landings — and the back of the coin is just the footprint that was left that they photographed on the surface of the moon.”
Kenny was also intrigued by Iowa’s Native American effigy mounds and how they ended up on the surface of a quarter. There is a cluster of more than 200 prehistoric Indian mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harper’s Ferry, Iowa. A subset of these — the effigy mounds — are animal-shaped, usually taking the form of a bird or a bear. In 2017, these effigy mounds landed on the surface of the Iowa Effigy Mounds America the Beautiful quarter.
“You’re looking at this landscape, and [the effigy mounds] look like animal crackers almost, spread down on the ground,” says Kenny.
If you look at an aerial photograph of the Marching Bear Group of effigy mounds, the inspiration for this coin design, the mounds actually do look a lot like animal crackers. “The person who was talking about the coin was kind of making fun of it,” says Kenny, “but he had to admit that there really was no other way to do this coin than the way the artist did it. For that reason, it kind of sticks out, too. Because at first, you’re not really sure what you’re looking at, which makes you look closer to kind of figure it out.”
Kenny was finishing up his third design when I interviewed him. If the Secretary of Treasury chooses one of his designs for a U.S. coin or medal, Kenny receives a $5,000 bonus, his initials will be engraved onto the coin, and his name will be listed on the coin’s Certificate of Authenticity.
“I don’t think it’s entirely sunk in yet,” says Kenny. “These coins, they’re probably the most visible form of art that’s out there, because it’s something that everybody interacts with every day. In that sense, it’s kind of unlike anything else. They kept stressing that we literally are becoming part of history, because these things, they never ever go away… we might not know who those artists were that made them, but with all the new ones that are coming out, now especially, people are going to be looking at these things for a long time.”
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