For its first Directions show in 1979, the Hirshhorn Museum gave a young staff curator $250 -- enough money to finance a few tours of the art haunts of New York City -- and told him to fill the museum's lower level with work reflecting "the democratic pluralism" of contemporary art.

With a dash of showmanship, curator Howard Fox allowed artist Loren Madsen to suspend a ton and a half of bricks from the museum floor. To help viewers make sense of that and the works of 17 other artists, Fox unveiled five trends in the contemporary art scene he thought the works showed: Eclectic Surfaces, Fictions, Imitations, Shrines and Brute Sculpture. The floating bricks were Brute Sculpture.

As Hirshhorn deputy director Stephen Weil recalls, "Howard's show got the art world buzzing."

And that's just what Weil, who thought up the format for the Directions show, had intended. A veteran of the Whitney Museum in New York, he knew that for the Hirshhorn to be considered a big-league institution, like the Guggenheim and the Whitney, it had to add a contemporary survey show to its usual top-notch exhibitions of permanent collections, historical surveys and one-person shows.

With the opening of its second survey show of contemporary art, Directions 1981, on Feb. 12 (through May 3), the Hirshhorn establishes a tradition and makes another attempt to enter the big leagues, going head-to-head with the Guggenheim and Whitney, which have been periodically surveying contemporary art for a decade and a half-century respectively.

The Guggenheim Exxon show of emerging artists opened yesterday. The Whitney Biennial opens Thursday. The Whitney will fill the entire museum with the works of 100 American artist ranging from unknowns to stars like Willem de Kooning. The Guggenheim will show an average of seven pieces each by 19 relatively unknown American artists. Directions will be smaller than the Guggenheim show and will emphasize the trends exhibited by 16 artists with about four works each.

Washington audiences, the Hirhhorn believes, need labels. This year the show is organized according to "Artistry," "Myth and Metaphor" and "Social Observation," and to delight hoi polloi, New Orleans artist Grover Mouton will place a microphone in the Capitol dome which will broadcast chatter live to the Hirshhorn -- obviously an example of "Social Observation."

A competition in contemporary art among three institutions does not impose a version of baseball's free-agent bidding war on the art world. While masterpieces are very dear, living artists are a dime a dozen.

With exhibitions of hitorical art, museums invest considerable sums to associate themselves with geniuses safey dead. Exhibitions of contemporary art are low budget -- so low that the curators who choose the artists barely have enough money to go see the art. Most of the artists in the Hirshhorn show don't even get a free ticket to Washington to see "their show." Not until their gallery dealers get busy promoting will they experience financial rewards for their association with an internationally famous museum like the Hirshhorn.

The Hirshhorn did give Miranda McClintic, the curator of Directions 1981, $2,000 for travel money, enough to get her as far west as Minneapolis and Fort Worth.

To make her money go as far as possible, she didn't hit the studios first. She combed the past 10 years of art magazines and perused regional art newspapers. She combed the National Endowment's and General Services Administration's files of artists' slides. She called fellow curator and art professors. She made lists and pruned lists until she asked 200 to 300 artists to send her slides. Then, she arranged to visit studios.

"To me a studio visit is an awkward thing," McClintic explains, "because you're going to look at something an artist has spent a long time doing and caring very much about and thinking very much about. And you're going in for an hour or two. It's an unfair situation. And if somebody misreads your interest and thinks it means they're absolutely in the show, that's awful. But that sounds too negative. Studio visits are fun. They're the best part of a curator's job, even though sometimes you're at it from 9 a.m. to midnight."

When she saw the 21 "Flashers" -- sheet metal evocations of male exhibitionists -- that filled Rosemarie Castoro's studio, McClintic had, says Castoro, "a gut reaction. She devoured the piece . . ."

Texas artist Earl Staley saw immediately that McClintic struck up a romance with his colorful mythological paintings. "We had a nice long talk about them," remembers Staley. "Then she came back for another visit and brought her husband."

The 34-year-old white middle-class curator with a graduate degree in art history picked white middle-class artists (average age 36) -- all but three with graduate degrees in fine arts. Accused of cloning herself in her choices, she insists that she went to as many art galleries showing minority artists as she could, and in her expert opinion the best art was just not there. And she never really looked into the academic backgrounds of the artists she chose until after she picked the show.

But with little money to visit artists' studios, how much cultural diversity can a curator track down?

As Howard Fox makes clear, the Hirshhorn gave him complete freedom -- but only $250.

Tom Freudenheim, director of the National Endowment for the Arts Museum Program, told that a museum purported to examine directions in contemporay artand gave the curator $250 for travel commented, "That would indicate that they didn't know what they were doing."

McClintic recalls, "I got more travel money because Howard tried hard to get it, and Howard's show was a success. They realized from what Howard said, and everybody else in our department said, that you can't do a show properly without travel money." Two grand still didn't get her to the West Coast and only one West Coast artist is in in the show.

According to a curator at the Hirshhorn, the Guggenheim's Peter Frank had $10,000 to $12,000 for travel for the Exxon show. Neither Frank nor the Guggenheim will confirm the amount. Frank says, "I ran out of travel money halfway through and went to the museum and Exxon and said I had to have more, and they gave me more."

Weil lays the blame for the Hirshhorn's parsimony at the feet of Congress: "Congress doesn't like federal workers traveling. We get a line-item travel budget and we can't go over that."

Indeed, the 80 staff members of the Hirshhorn had all of $12,000 for travel in 1979. Weil pleads there was no way to give Fox more money.

Tom Peyton, deputy budget director of the Smithsonian, which overseas the Hirshhorn demurs: "If a museum can find money from somewhere else in it's budget, it can reprogram 5 percent of its funds." The total Hirshhorn budget is slightly over $2 million and about $500,000 of that is non-personnel costs. Weil, however, does not accept the possiblity that the Hirshhorn could have reprogrammed funds for travel. "It's news to me!" he shouted.

Even the Whitney, very much the pioneer of studio visits to find new artisits, invests meager sums in its Biennial. According to National Endowment records, three curators shared $7,500 in travel money for the 1981 Biennial. But in its endowment application the Whitney claimed, "because of the [travel] program, hundreds of good artists of all ages, backgrounds, styles and locations now have the opportunity to have their work reviewed by the Whitney curators, possibly resulting in their inclusion in the Biennial." t

In the 1975 Biennial curators did scour the country for new talent, but now, as Whitney curatorBarbara Haskell explains, "To organize the show the three curators meet and decide on an organizing structure and who we want in the show. Then we go out and pick the work we want."

Budgets for historical shows are always weightier than those for shows of contemporary art. The budgeted cost of a Whitney exhibition of deceased American artist Marsden Hartley was twice as much as a group show of living representational painters, $167,290 as compared to $82,600.

And once shows are put together, historical shows invariably get much more money for promotional expenses. The Whitney budgeted more than $12,000 for promotion for the Hartley show and $750 for the show of contemporay representational painters.

There is a similar contrast in emphasis in two shows at the Corcoran Gallery. The Corcoran budgeted $8,000 for publicity and posters for a show of Hartley's comteporary, Guy Pene du Bois. For a show of Washington representational painters, the Corcoran's promotion budget was $250.

Museums sell their scholarship. Living artists can sell themselves.

If historical art cost so much to show and living artists seem readily available, why don't museums show more living artists? Curators who tour the hinterland unanimously agree, "There is a lot of good work out there."

McClintic claims, "I could mount a show of 16 artists as good as ones in this show every week."

"Our primary concern is our permanent collection," says Weil, whose Museum gets more than $200,000 a year to acquire works for its collection. "And we get a lot of complaints from people who come to Washington and can't see their favorite works because of a special exhibition.

"Even if we did fill the museum with unknown contemporary art," Weil argues, "there will still be thousands of living artisis we don't show. They'll complain, or somebody will complain for them."

In truth, no artists complain now, at least not openly, when only 16 relatively unkown artists are show in three months out of every two years. Asked if he grieves for artists whose work doesn't get into the Hirshhorn, sculptor Loren Madsen replies, "I've been left out of a lot of shows. That's show biz."

Well, not exactly show biz. It's more a kind of forced restictiveness in an effort to create some value in a very glutted market. Being in Directions, almost every artist in it explains, "validates" their work and themselves. The fewer validated, the more valuable the validation.

Yet, despite that, never have so few honored by being picked from so many greeted the whole phenomenon with such a lot of excitement. It's not just that there isn't honorarium, travel money or an awards dinner. The artists know that when all is said and done the names that will stick in the collective memory from the whole effort will be Miranda McClitic and the Hirshhorn Museum. As Directions artist William Beckman says, "When curators pick work for theie shows, they like to leave their fingerprints."

Vernon Fisher, whose work weaves words and images into romping yet meaningful yarns, has won the season's triple crown. He has a piece in the Whitney, seven in the Guggenheim and four in the Hirshhorn. "I'll be out East a while to install my pieces," Fisher says without a trace of excitement, "but I can't stay long. I have teaching commitments back here at NorthTexas State."

Judy Pfaff, whose room installation at the Hirshhorn will let you almost swim inside a painting, also has a piecein the Whitney.

"I'm a real schlep," she sighed. "Doing a piece is physically and mentally a marathon. I'll work around the clock for several days and nobody but an Italian count could buy what I make. The Whitney doesn't give me anymoney. At least the Hirshhorn will pay my expenses [to spend several days creating her original room installation on the premises]. The Hirshhorn is an important museum, but I just look atit as a space. The art world's funny: aone day you're in a museum, the next day in a friend's attic."

Video artist James Byrne, whose piece turns four television sets into a kaleidoscope, suggests the Hirshhorn might botch the installation of his work. He says the Hirshhorn is bush league because, "They won't even pay myway to come to Washington to install piece!" Only Pfaff and West Coast artist Lita Albuquerque will get travel, per diem and materials for installing their work, but they won't be able to take what they make home withthem.

But as unexcited as an artist might be about being in the show, it can make a financial difference. David Schirm was in Directions 1979. When he created his four paintings and shipped them to Washington, their average cost was $1,200. Fortunately he made the trip from California to Washington, saw how underpriced his work was, raisedthe prices $600 to $800 and sold three works.

Sculptors thrive more on commissions.Madsen didn't sell his floating brick but after Directions 1979 he did get a $125,000 GSA commission in Baltimore. He has also been involved in two National Endowment for the Arts projects.

After seeing his work in a catalogue,Fox tracked down John Van Alstine Wyoming. Pierre Levai of the prestigious Marlborough Gallery in New York saw Van Alstine's work in Directions 1979 and commissioned the artists to do a piece for his gallery's courtyard. The Hirshhorn purchased one of Van Alstine's pieces. A $75,000 commission in Denver is being negotiated by Marlborough.

If anybody is to make sense of these combinations of contemporary artists, it is the commercial gallery dealers. In their ranks one finally finds the excitement lacking in artists and curators. It is they who will keep thememory of Directions 1981 fresh in the minds of potential buyers. But their excitement does not raise from the anticipation of let's-make-a-deal. Money is the least of it, they say. Our very culture is what's at stake.

SoHo gallery dealer Holly Solomon has had artists in Directions, Bicennials and Guggenheim Exxon shows. She gets angry with those who criticize them: "If we want a great culture to be part of, to pass on, a culture that will be viable for the future, if we want to create a heritage,we need these shows like Directions, and I'm damn fed up with people who knock them. At a time when a wave of conservatism is in the country, curatorsare out there on a limb scared they're going to get their heads handed to them.

"A lot of people see new work and it upsets them. Art deals with a whole raft of emotional responses and the curator is an eagle on the rock with everybody shooting at her. Safe shows kill culture. We all need to see one person's choice of what is new and good.As for selling art, naturally these shows help. Artists have to eat too."

The eagle on the rock for the next three months in Washington is Miranda McClintic. As for the "shooting" that might be done at her, she's not unmindful that the ricochets could set the art world buzzing. People like Holly Solomon who had never heard of her before will know her name and tastes, and like Howard Fox she'll probably get job offers from other institutions. Still, for all her year and a half trying to perfect a style to approach her show, McClintic confesses in her darker moments that themaster of chance combinations, avant-garde composera/artists John Cage, "might be able to put a show likethis together in three days, and everybody would love it."