WASHINGTON — For more than half a century, a committee of cultural heavyweights has met behind closed doors, its deliberations kept secret, weighing the faces and images of Americana worthy of gracing U.S. postage stamps. While its rulings have been advisory, they long carried the weight of writ.
Now comes a youngster from across the seas. He isn’t what these leading lights from the fields of arts and letters, athletics and philately had in mind. For one, he seems kind of crass to some. And worse, he isn’t even American.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Postal Service released 20 postage stamps honoring Harry Potter, and officials at the cash-strapped agency hope the images, drawn straight from the Warner Bros. movies, will be the biggest blockbuster since the Elvis Presley stamp 20 years ago.
But the selection of the British boy wizard is creating a stir in the cloistered world of postage-stamp policy. The Postal Service has bypassed the panel charged with researching and recommending subjects for new stamps, and the members are rankled, not least of all because Potter is a foreigner, several members said.
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The dispute caps more than a year of friction between the Postal Service and the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, named by the postmaster general to help make sure that the American experience is properly portrayed. The committee has grown increasingly disaffected over how the agency’s marketing staff has pushed pop culture at the expense of images that could prove more enduring.
Set up as a filter between the postmaster general and the public, which petitions the Postal Service for about 40,000 stamp subjects and designs each year, the committee includes such eminent Americans as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., former American Film Institute president Jean Picker Firstenberg and Olympic swimmer and sportscaster Donna de Varona. A former postmaster general, top Smithsonian Museum official, graphic designers and philatelists also belong.
Its mission is to ensure that stamp subjects “have stood the test of time, are consistent with public opinion and have broad national interest.”
For one of the only times in its 56-year-history, the committee was not consulted in the decision to put Potter and his friends and foes on the run of 100 million “forever” stamps.
“Harry Potter is not American. It’s foreign, and it’s so blatantly commercial it’s off the charts,” said John Hotchner, a stamp collector in Falls Church, Va., and former president of the American Philatelic Society, who served on the committee for 12 years until 2010. “The Postal Service knows what will sell, but that’s not what stamps ought to be about. Things that don’t sell so well are part of the American story.”
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in an interview that the agency “needs to change its focus toward stamps that are more commercial” as a way to increase revenue to compensate for declining mail volume as Americans switch to the Internet.
Stamp sales have dropped along with first-class mail. Sales came to $7 billion last year, postal officials say.
Donahoe said postal officials chose Harry Potter because of the subject’s appeal to young people — and in an effort to inspire that demographic to become collectors.
Donahoe acknowledged that the advisory committee feels “a lot of disruption” from the agency’s change in direction.
“As we move in direction, they’ll be working with us on that,” he said.
Members of the advisory committee have complained to Donahoe that they have been brushed aside by agency staff, led by marketing director Nagisa Manabe, a former Coca-Cola executive hired in 2012 to reinvigorate the postal brand. Manabe moved the stamp program into her department and pushed aside veterans in the program, according to postal sources.
At her urging, the committee changed its charter to allow corporate advertising on stamps, as long as it is not featured as the main element, according to people familiar with the changes. The charter now includes “contemporary and timely” in its criteria for new stamp selection, with “educational” a factor but no longer an “essential” one.
Many ideas for new stamps now originate with her staff and are heavy with celebrity subjects, those familiar with the changes say. Among those now under consideration are the Beatles and, Apple founder Steve Jobs.
In September, the committee’s frustration boiled over and all 13 members walked out of their meeting and signed an unprecedented letter to Donahoe demanding he meet with them.
In a response to the letter, Donahoe suggested the committee’s meetings may be cut to two from four a year.
The Harry Potter stamp is eliciting similar skepticism from collectors.
“The attitude should be that stamps are works of art and little pieces of history,” said Don Schilling, a collector in Los Angeles who publishes an online-stamp blog. “They shouldn’t be reduced to the latest fads, whatever’s going to sell.”