Stephen E. Ostrow, 45, has emerged as the leading candidate for the position of director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. An experienced scholar and administrator. Ostrow has been director of the Rhode Island School of Design's museum since 1971.

"Negotiations are at a delicate stage," one member of the Corcoran's search committee said yesterday. "No decision has been taken, but Ostrow clearly is the front-runner for the job."

The museum's board meets Monday. Ostrow will visit Washington today for additional discussions with Corcoran trustees who have interviewed more than a dozen candidates since Roy Slade resigned last March.

"There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip," Corcoran president David Lloyd Kreeger said yesterday. "Ostrow is a candidate, but there are others. To single out his name would be premature.

"Ostrow's credentials are impressive," acknowledged Kreeger, who pointed out that the Corcoran's director supervises both the gallery and the Corcoran School of Art.

Ostrow has worked for universities, an art school and museums. A native of New York, who graduated from Oberlin and received his doctorate in art history from New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, Ostrow has taught at Rutgers and at Brown. He has written numerous articles on Italian baroque painting.For a 1969 exhibit called "Raid the Icebox," he invited Andy Warhol to select a show from the well-stocked storerooms of the Providence museum.

Ostrow yesterday could not be reached for comment. "We've proceeded very deliberately," said search-committee chairman Greeborn G. Jewett. "We hope our search is ending, but we have yet to recommend a name to the Corcoran's trustees."