Art can "change" the country — at least that's what the U.S. Mint is hoping.

The Mint is calling on all Americans, from aspiring artists and students to professionals, to share their fresh ideas — and possibly get the chance to have their work circulated throughout the country in the form of coins and medals.

While some may consider change "spare," millions of collectors who appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship that go into each coin helped to spark the idea for the program, called the Artistic Infusion Program.

"Americans have been asking for many years if we would consider coin redesign," said Mint director Henrietta Holsman Fore. "We're hoping to encourage a new generation of artists to design in this medium."

The experience of seeing one's own work minted into a coin is "quite special," according to Dean McMullen, a Portland, Ore.-based artist who has had five of his designs coined by the U.S. Mint, including one featured on the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center commemorative half-dollar created in 2001.

Designing a coin involves unique obstacles such as deciding what graphics to use, but the reward of seeing your work is a thrill, McMullen said.

"You get so wedded to the thing by the time it's coined, it's so matter of fact. But to actually see the coin done ... boy does that feel good."

The 50 State Quarters Program (search) sparked a wave of numismatics across the country — 130 million Americans are collecting the quarters that feature each state's attributes, Fore said.

And in 2004, the nickel will undergo its first makeover in 65 years. There will be two new designs for the coin's tail side, one commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase and another celebrating the expedition of Lewis and Clark.

Bill Conroy, a coin grader for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (search) in Sarasota, Fla., said introducing new designs into circulation generates an enormous amount of excitement in the collecting community.

"There are collectors who want one of every coin for the need to complete the set," Conroy said. "But far more want ones they find beautiful and interesting."

But the Mint is not only seeking innovative designs — an appreciation for the country's values and history is also a must.

"Coins serve as ambassadors for our country around the world," said Fore. "When you reach into your pocket and pull out a coin from our country it carries the value of our nation. It's a bit of history in your pocket."

Robert Frankel, director of museum and visual arts for the National Endowment of the Arts (search), will oversee the panel charged with picking winners of the coin design contest.

The panel, which will be comprised of artists, design and museum professionals, will choose a pool of 20 professional artists and 20 college- and graduate-level art students.

"Artists have designed coins and metals since the usage of coins began," he said. For example, Augustus Saint-Gaudens created the 1907 $20 gold piece, which is still heralded for its beauty.

Chosen designers don't just get the satisfaction of knowing their design is being jangled around in pockets across the country — they'll also be earning some dollars for their cents. Professional artists will receive $1,000 for each design submitted and another $1,000 if it is picked. Students will be rewarded half that amount.

But winners get more than just cash — they get the honor of having their work live on for years to come.

"Coins last for 30 years, but if you go to the coin shows, you will see Greek and Roman coins, so they can last for thousands of years," said Fore. "It's a tiny palette for an artist, but it's very meaningful and enduring."

McMullen agreed, and said that knowing his designs will be around for years is "very satisfying to the soul."

Applications and details can be found on the Mint's Web site: www.usmint.gov/artists/. The deadline for submissions is Jan. 9.