The Corcoran Gallery of Art is adrift.

No calmity appears imminent. The financial storms that wracked it have passed. Its friends are raising money - 1200 of them yesterday paid $85 each to attend the Corcoran Ball.

No longer is the gallery slashing at its payroll; its staff, in fact, is growing. Edward Nygren, its scholarly curator, is doing first-rate work with the permanent collections. Many of his galleries have been reinstalled and restoration has begun. Next month, for the first time in its history, the Corcoran School of Art will grant bachelor degrees.

By the standards of the past, the Corcoran seems shipshape. But there is a problem at the helm.

The position of director has been vacant since June, and the search for a replacement has been temporarily postponed.

The cause of the delay is a personnel search for a "professional" chief executive to succeed Gilbert Kinney, the former Foreign Service officer who stepped into the breech on a "temporary" basis when Roy Slade resigned last summer.

Peter Thomas is in place at the school. But because no director is on board, and because Kinney is expected to depart, the Corcoran is seeking two leaders, not one.

Though both Nygren and fellow curator Jane Livingston are staging exhibitions, that situation is not helping curatorial morale.

These days the crowds at the Corcoran are not large. How will the museum respond to competition from the National Collection, the Hirshborn, and above all from the National Gallery's new building which, with many works of modern art, will open here in June?

Will the Corcoran focus its activities on its permanent collections, or will it try to regain its 1960s flash?

These questions cannot be well answered until both top jobs are filled.

The new chief executive, says board president David Lloyd Kreeger, will be selected first.The advisability of installing an administrator above the director is a bone of some contention in museum circles. Twice (with Aldus H. Chapin, then with Vincent Melzac) the Corcoran has tried it, with - at best - mixed results.

"I keep warning my trustees," says Kreeger. "We must beware of the patterns of the past."

"I came aboard to steady the ship," says Kinney, "and I'm pleased by what I've accomplished." Financially, and physically, the Corcoran has been improved. The huge operating deficits of a few years ago are no longer draining the endowment. Sheila McC. Muccio, a new vice president for development and public relations, has been hired to raise membership and funds.

Tall windows, blocked for years, are now being opened to bring natural light. A new building projects director, Adm. William O. Snead, who for 11 years was the business manager at the Madiera School, also has joined the staff. His office is designing an energy-efficient, relatively inexpensive chilled-air cooling system that will be compatible with the old museum's long-blocked, built-in ducts.

As a Washington museum and private insitution, the Corcoran must rely on community support and on private funds.

It also needs direction.

"We are seeking an executive with proven skills and experience," says Kreeger. Until one is found, and a director hired, the course that will be followed by the gallery in the 1980s remains in doubt.