The federal government, which is usually reluctant to tinker with U.S. money, is engaged in the most radical and democratic currency-design experiment in its history. Since 1999, the U.S. Treasury has issued 19 of the 50 coins in its decadelong state-quarters project and has approved the design for one more. For the first time in memory, states—not the U.S. Mint—are designing their own coins. The results are not encouraging. Most of the designs, usually chosen by a state commission appointed by the governor, are boring, timid, and cluttered—evidence of all that can go wrong when art is created by committee. They are also surprisingly revealing about the peculiar, parochial ways that states view themselves.
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