`High price' of freedom for Hungarian artists

In this village north of Budapest, some of Hungary's most renowned artists are angry. Their problem is not communist censorship. Instead, it is too much liberty. After receiving the right this year to open up their own gallery, the artists are having trouble selling enough paintings to make a profit.

``Freedom carries a high price,'' lamented Lajos Golovics, managing director of the Art Eria Gallery. ``Heating, lighting, telephone - everything costs so much.''

The travails of Szentendre's artists show how hard it is for artists to reconcile conflicting demands in this most relaxed of Eastern European countries. They long for the benefits of free expression. But at the same time, they find it hard to break away from long years of government support - and censorship.

Similar problems affect other Hungarian artistic endeavors. When government-appointed managers proposed a series of budget cuts this past summer, film directors revolted and virtually shut down the studios for several months. The authorities finally revoked the controversial cuts, but now are studying more radical ideas - such as breaking up the present monopoly of the State Film Institute or even selling it to the private sector.

Until recently, such proposals were considered heresy. During the 1950s and early '60s, the state strictly controlled art. Avant-garde paintings were frowned upon. Social realism was extolled.

``You had to paint courageous steel workers,'' recalled Pal Deim, president of the group of Art Eria artists. ``The state wouldn't buy abstracts and it wouldn't expose them.''

Gradually, the authorities loosened these rules. They rediscovered Szentendre's artistic traditions, dating from the establishment of an artist colony at the turn of the century. During the 1970s, 13 museums were built, a fancy new art gallery opened, and 41 new artistic communities established.

For a communist country, today's official tolerance appears remarkable. In state-run galleries and museums, a wide variety of primitives, surrealists, and expressionists are shown. In his office at the Ministry of Culture, art director Gyorgy Horvath picked up his latest acquisition, an abstract piece of sculture.

``We don't buy just realistic art anymore,'' Mr. Horvath said. ``We buy good art.''

But Mr. Deim and his friends remained dissatisfied. They complained that Szentendre's state-owned art gallery preferred commercial paintings to their more experimental works. They also did not like the low commissions it paid artists. ``We wanted to control our own work,'' Deim said.

So Deim and 20 other artists decided to open their own gallery. Just as the authorities have begun to encourage businessmen to set up private shops, they are beginning to encourage artists to set up their own galleries. A state bank gave the Art Eria artists a $2,500 loan and the local municipality rented them a building at a low price.

``We did all the work ourselves, including painting the walls white,'' said artist Janos Aknay. ``Imagine that - 21 artists spending weeks painting walls white.''

In March of this year, the gallery finally opened. On the outside, the gallery retains a rustic village touch; inside, the atmosphere is strikingly modern with stainless steel spotlights. An eclectic mixture of abstract avant-garde styles is displayed. Prices are amazingly reasonable, starting as low as $20 for a lithograph.

Still, the operation teeters on bankruptcy. Scared off by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the falling dollar, and West European terrorism, few foreign tourists have showed up. Hungarians who earn an average salary of $125 a month cannot afford to buy the art.

``I'm afraid many of the artists may give up,'' said manager Golovics. ``To make ends meet, we've even started doing invitation cards and poster design.''

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