FOR WASHINGTON REVIEW of the Arts, the 36-page tabloid that has been covering the cultural scene here on a zero-based budget for the past three years, better times are at hand. Its wandering files and drawing boards have come to roost at last - behind the Studio Gallery, on the trendy stretch of F Street, east of the doughnut shop and west of the hat stalls, that's becoming our local Soho.

It has a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to expand from a quarterly to six issues a year and give token payments to its writers - $10 per article, instead of nothing, and five free copies of the Review . (It sells for 75 cents a copy; $5.00 a year). In addition, it has a "general support" grant from the Co-ordinating Council of Literary Magazines, a conduit organization for the National Endowment for the Arts. "We'll probably use it to pay the printer," Jean Lewton, the managing editor, says.

This month the Review will publish a special issue - "The most ambitious we've undertaken," says editorial board member Patricia Griffith - a 20-page pull-out section, without ads, devoted to a group of poets from Howard University. "Most of them teach. They have classical backgrounds, and wrote very good poetry at Howard in the 1950s," Griffith says. "They were important in the development of black poetry before black poets were widely published. Some, like Lance Jeffers and Percy Johnston, are well known and still writing."

There will be 18 poems in the section, edited by Myra Sklarew, a Washington poet and guest poetry editor of the Review .

The Review got its start, Patricia Griffith explains, "because of a feeling among the younger writers and artists here that they were not getting attention. There was no place where a writer without a nem could publish a short story. We felt the Review filled a need. Now the whole situation has improved."

Four of the five members of the editorial board have been with the paper from the start and have professional specialities of their own. Jean Lewton, managing editor, spent five years as associate editor of DC Gazette , the altnernative monthly, and currently is a registrar at the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts and associated with the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. She specializes in art and politics, and wrote the Review's penetrating analysis of the tangled state of art grants in the District. Her husband, Val Lewton, is an artist and contributes air criticism to the review. Patricia Griffith is a novelist (The Future Is Not What It Used to Be was published by Simon & Schuster in 1970), a prize-winning short story writer, and this year has a literary fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts - "so I'm the fiction editor," as she says. Clarissa Wittenberg, a professional writer in the field of mental health, with an interest in art on the side, is art editor and layout designer, which doesn't prevent her from also contributing articles on the theater. Richard King, another editorial board member, teaches cultural history at Federal City College, and is now in England on a Fulbright teaching fellowship. Elizabeth Brunazzi, a poet who works with Robert Alexander at the Living Theater, has recently joined the board as poetry review editor.

"We meet as seldom as possible," Griffith says. "We all do other things, and it's a big drain on our time and energy." They've never missed a deadline, but they've had some narrow squeaks. They were evicted from their first headquarters; put together one issue in the basement of a church and another in the Museum of Contemporary Art; and spent a year publishing out of Val Lewton's studio in a basement on Capitol Hill.

The Review print order is 3,000, but the editors figure that with "the poor writers and artists who pass it around," they can count on three readers to a copy, and maybe more. It is sold in about 15 places around town, including Folio Books at 20th and P, where it has been known to outsell the New York Review of Books .

Review editors take turns producing a weekly radio program, "Washington Review on the Air," over WAMU-FM, Friday mornings at 10:30. "It's a free-wheeling program, with a lot of artists and writers - reviews and interviews in a serious and technical way," Patricia Griffith says. On a program about native American dance, associate editor Sally Crowell did a tap dance on a table top to illusltrate a point.

Last year, the Review organized a small press book fair at the Washington Project for the Arts on G Street, with about 35 presses represented, mostly from around here, and the first major gathering of its kind. "It was such a success, it really knocked us out," Griffith says. "There is a very significant amount of literary activity here. It's a shame more people don't realize it."