AVISIT to Budapest overwhelms the foreign tourist with contrasts between romantic tradition and the new, businesslike Hungary. Yes, the Danube sweeps majestically through the city, at once dividing and uniting Buda and Pest, its banks exquisitely decorated by ornate buildings and bridges. Just moments away, however, one winces at capitalism and the invasive American culture. Banners and signs for Burger King, Pizza Hut, and such adorn the city streets and the famous promenade, Vaci Utca.
But what is not apparent in this country is an American presence of a different sort: a four-year, $729,000 project helping Hungarian artisans. Funded by the Agency for International Development, the Connecticut organization Aid to Artisans (ATA) has helped skilled but struggling workers in the folk-art crafts to blossom in a world market.
Because craft cooperatives were state supported for over 40 years, the artisans had little experience in modern technology and product design. They didn't understand the importance in business of initiative, assertiveness, or competition. The dismantling of communism led to soaring inflation, which greatly diminished the domestic market for folk art; Hungarians who could buy wanted to spend their money at last outside the Eastern bloc. The artisans' future looked bleak.
ATA moved quickly to help - not to give cash, but to rescue the artisans from an information vacuum by holding seminars on exporting, product design, and marketing. American buyers were invited to see the high-quality, low-cost products. Enthusiasm was high, but much had to be done to serve the new markets: redesigning of folk art to accommodate American taste, providing more color, eliminating lead glazes, and guaranteeing exclusivity of product lines.
Today, elegant feltwork hats, jackets, and mittens by Hungarian artisans appear in top catalogues such as those of the Smithsonian and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, through importer and designer Gay Ellis of Sheffield, Vermont. Ms. Ellis, charmed by Hungarian items in ATA's booth in the 1991 New York Gift Show, designed clothing based on the shepherd's szur or cloak, and worked directly with Ica Iodorne, the export agent for her textile cooperative in the eastern Hungarian town of Debrecen.
Ellis's company, LANYA (meaning daughter) employs local American workers to finish and assemble each garment. Her brochure depicts her interpretation of the folk art tradition handed down from mother to daughter over the centuries.
She typifies the small but real success stories of our increasingly domestic market resulting from this American foreign aid project. Many obstacles still exist on both sides. But already the double payoff is the rescue of artisans and their unique skills from oblivion, and real economic benefits to buyers and workers in our country.
Tourists won't find street banners advertising this foreign aid project, but here's something good that America is doing in the former Eastern bloc, and it's good for Americans, too. We need to know about it and be proud of the people that put it together. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.