OVER THE past decade, the U.S. government, as a sign of its cultural maturity, has set out to devise a complex support system to help its artists survive, chiefly through grants - direct grants, indirect grants, matching grants and occasional commissions. Though millions have been spent in this way to support artists, very little federal money has been spent simply buying what they make - which is their art.

The Canadian government five-years ago, however, began a fascinating experiment in simplicity: buying $5 million worth of work by the best contemporary Canadian artists, putting it into an Art Bank, and, for a modest fee, leasing the work out to federal agencies in need of paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings and photographs to enhance office spaces.

To make the idea even more appealing, and to make the whole thing possible, the treasury issued a directive stating that henceforth fees paid for art, rented from the Art Bank would be a legitimate item in the budget alongside chairs and paperclips.

The point of setting up the Art Bank was not to decorate government offices, but to help support Canadian artists by purchasing their work, instead of doling out more grants. In its five-years existence, Art Bank has purchased more than 7,000 works by 900 different artists for its permanent collection, well-established names as well as lesser-knowns, conservatives and way-outs.

The project has also had important spinoffs for artists, both in the form of a growing number of provincial and city art banks being set up throughout Canada, and through exhibitions which travel across the country and the ocean, thereby advancing reputations and affording precious new exposure.

Art Bank, the first such government effort in the world on this scale, was the brainchild of artist Suzanne Rivard. Le Moyne, who saw the need and possibilities for such a project when she was Visual Arts Officer of the Canada Council - rough equivalent of our National Endowment for the Arts. In 1972 Le Moyne convinced the Canadian government to appropriate, through the Canada Council, $5 million dollars or five years to get the Art Bank started.

A large, high-security warehouse complex on the outskirts of Ottawa has designed and fitted out so that works could be matted, framed and counted on the spot, and then stored pleasant, open, easy-access storage places which potential leasees could sit to make their selections. The idea [WORD ILLEGIBLE] on, not only in Canada, but throughout the world, and officials from Australia, India, Germany and even the United States have been checking out the Canadian prototype with an eye to setting up similar programs. The project has just been funded for five more years at the same level, $1 million per year.

Though only government offices are currently using the Art Bank facilities, they are mandated to deal also with provincial government offices, hospitals, schools and, on a test basis, private corporations. Limitations of staff, however, have made this expansion impossible thus far. Art Bank has only 17 employees, including secretaries and technicians, and only three liaison officers who go out and sell the program to various agencies and help choose and install the art.

"Our only criteria is quality," said Chief Liaison Officer Lise Cohen, who was in town last week to hang a small show of 20 varied and high-quality graphics from the Art Bank Collection at the Canadian Embassy's newly inaugurated Art Gallery at 1746 Massachusetts Ave. NW. "Our only requirement is that the artists be citizens or landed immigrants."

"The selection procedure is simple, and so far it has worked extremely well," says Cohen. "Any artist or dealer can send us slides which are submitted every six weeks to a jury of three art experts, critics, curators, etc. - the jury changes each time - and these juries decide which artists might merit a studio visit. Disgruntled artists can resubmit to a new jury every six weeks.

"When several artists from the same region have been selected, a trip is made to their studios by the Art Bank director, who then assembles an ad hoc jury of three more people on the spot, including himself, one local and one non-local artist. They select the works for purchase. The only limitation is that not more than $23,000 can be spent on one artist in any year."

Does the Art Bank get a discount? "Absolutely not," says Mrs. Cohen, "they pay the going rate, adn deal both through dealers and with artists." The acquisitions budget is still close to 75 per cent of the $1 million allocated, which also has to be used for overhead and salaries. "We try very hard to keep costs down," she says, adding that because of the small staff new clients are now having to wait several weeks before a liaison officer can meet with them, see their space and help them draw up a budget and make a selection.

The fee structure is simple: Leasing costs are 12 per cent per-year of the purchase price of the work of art. A painting valued at $3,000 would rent for $360 per year. Framed drawings and graphics valued at less than $1,000 rent for a flat $25 annual fee. "We cannot do installations of less than $200," says Lise Cohen, "we simply haven't got the time." The fee includes everything, installation, insurance and even transportation. CBC/Radio, the Department of Health and Welfare and Transport Canada are among the many regular borrowers. Canadian museums, hard pressed for acquisition funds, are also allowed to borrow long-term from Art Bank, but without a fee. They pay only transport costs.

Since the Art Bank charges leasing fees, can it ever be self-sustaining, or even profit-making? "It seems unlikely at this time," says Cohen, "chiefly because as the demand grows, the overhead costs increase, and we don't want to raise the fees. We are, after all, a service, not a business." Income is going up, however. During the first five-years of the program, an average of $100,000 per year was returned to Art Bank in fees. Last year income was up to $170,000, which Art Bank gets to keep.

At the moment, the majority of works in the Art Bank, close to two thirds, is framed works on paper, including drawings and several commissioned graphics editions, which range from conservative to way out. Unblinkingly, there are several nudes. "There is no censorship of any kind, only quality," reiterates Lise Cohen.

There are also some very large and bold paintings, some of which were borrowed from the Art Bank for the Hirshhorn's Canadian show last season. The warehouse is also filled with large abstract any very contemporary sculptures for both indoor and outdoor use. Most new public buildings in Canada, however, as in the United States, have commissioned art integrated into the original architectural plan. In Canada up to one per cent is allocated for such art-in-architecture programs. The U.S. General Services Administration program provides one half of one per cent. Canada, not incidentally, is the third largest per capita art spender in the world, after Sweden and West Germany.

The perfection of the Art Bank idea suggests its inevitability everywhere in this culture-conscious civilization, and it seems only a matter of time until the U.S. government sets up a similar project. The General Services Administration already has the idea under scrutiny, according to Administrator Jay Solomon. "It's chiefly a matter of selling the idea to Congress," he says.

The larger question may be who should ideally administer such a program. Is GSA too politically sensitive to insulate the purchase of art from congressional interference? On the other hand, should the National Endowment for the Arts be given yet more arts power? Or, do we need a new set-up, independent of, but administered by NEA, or GSA, corresponding to the Canadian plan?

With luck these questions will be answered soon, at which time the United States can join its imaginative neighbor to the north in the best kind of artist support system yet devised by man - buying art.