For years, Art Centrum sold Czechoslovakian modern art abroad. What it sold at home was propaganda.
Like many Czechoslovakians under communism, the state-sponsored gallery of fine arts has led a schizophrenic life, trying to maintain its convictions within the straitjacket of a repressive political and cultural system.But Art Centrum's duality went even further, according to officials, providing a glimpse into both the foreign trade policy and the hypocrisy of the regime that fell from power last year.
The gallery, founded in 1964 as part of the Ministry of Culture, served largely as a propaganda tool to display and glorify the "official" art that was sanctioned by the government.
It was the sort of epic poster art that still graces, or disgraces, some of the country's currency: unblinking portraits of heroic farmers and trusty workers against scenes of billowing factories or flapping flags. What it lacked in originality, it made up for in sheer volume.
"They followed the old saying, 'When you repeat a lie 100 times, it becomes true,' " said Libor Vesely, a gallery official. But behind the facade, another world was taking shape.
Against all odds, Czechoslovak artists were developing an avante garde movement that was almost unknown within the country. Works that were bitter, ironic and often beautiful became a protest against both the government and its "art."
But the cash-strapped regime, unable to stop the underground movement, soon decided to go into the business itself, creating an absurd but cruel situation worthy of Franz Kafka.
By 1977, when Art Centrum was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Trade, Czechoslovak modern art was already building an international audience, providing the government with a source of revenue that was entirely unknown within the country.
"Their attitude was, if you can sell, just please sell," Mr. Vesely said.
Hypocrisy turned out to be good business. The art sold well abroad, and four-fifths of Art Centrum's profits were paid to the government, which continued its policy of censorship at home.
Enthusiasm over the unofficial art reached new heights in the United States two years ago with a show at New York's Guggenheim Museum, and last year Art Centrum put on more than 120 exhibitions abroad.
But also last year, the new government of President Vaclav Havel put a sudden stop to the two-track art scene, declaring freedom of expression and ending Art Centrum's monopoly as a gallery. Official artists were kicked off the payroll.
For officials at Art Centrum, it came as a relief. They were finally able to drop "official" art entirely and devote resources to more worthy projects. In the new spirit of competition, the gallery also reduced its fees.
Today Art Centrum officials make no bones about the policy they were forced to follow. That was seen as the price of fostering real art.
"The whole situation in the country was schizophrenic," Mr. Vesely said.