When next you walk that long stretch between the National Collection of Fine Arts and the National Gallery, set a bit of time aside for exploring some of the out-of-the-way arts groups hidden in the shadows of the major exhibits.

One of the first stops heading south from the NCFA (housed in the dame building as the National Portrait Gallery) is the Studio Gallery (802 F Street NW), a cooperative of established local artists that recently uprooted itself from Dupont Circle's P Street strip. In back of the gallery is the office for Washington Review of the Arts.

Around the corner from Studio Gallery is a multi-media center and restaurant known as downtown's "in" artist hangout: aggressively lower-case, district creative space (443 7th Street NW) brings in conceptual artists who stage "art performances" with videotapes of their work. The gallery space upstairs doubles as a music hall in New York's "loft" tradition. "The Space," as the regulars call it, books such jazz musicians as Julius Hemphill, Con Cherry and oliver Lake, known as pioneers in the improvised-music movement. On any given afternoon or evening, painters, photographers, sculptors and groupies gather to swill pitchers of Whitbread ale (on tap) and listen to local jazz groups. Don't be suprised if the musicians pass the hat - there's no cover charge in the restaurant.

Two blocks father south and you're in Market Square, the commericial district blueprinted in L'Enfant's original city plan and a noteworthy enclave of historic structures. Anyone who likes antiques - buildings and furniture - should drop in on L. Litwin and Son, (637 Indiana Avenue NW), a family-owned business since 1910. Litwin says his building dates back to 1827 - it was a grocery store - and has a working hand-operated grain elevator built about 30 years later. In all its years of devoted service this relic has never needed repair and still passes inspection.

Two doors down is the Artifactory (641 Indiana Avenue NW), a foreign-imports store selling ethnic clothing, jewelry and objets d'art at reasonable prices. Upstairs is Intuitiveye Gallery (641 Indiana Avenue NW), which specializes in exhibiting the works by up-and-coming young photographers. Picture buffs I know say this place has an excellent selection of photographers. Picture selection of photography books.

Back up on G Street resides the untraditional Museum of Temporary Art (1206 G Street NW). It's "untraditionalism" was demonstrated at an exhibit earlier this year, focusing on dirt: household dirt, soil samples and even porn. Another, lasting only one evening and billed as a "Born-Again Benefit," documented "born-again" phenomena in American culture.

The next exhibit, "Men and Women," which opens November 2 for a short stay, explores the nature of male-female relationships. Images from history, literature and the media (Superman, for example) will be silkscreened directly on the walls by local artist Ann Wood. Alison Abelson's film short about a young couple breaking up, "Serenade to a Marriage," will be shown. Music chronicling the joy and pain of dealing with the opposite sex, from "My Fair Lady" to punk rock, will serenade the spectators.

Across the street from the eccentric MOTA resides Washington Project for the Arts (1227 G Street NW), a non-commercial multi-media center that specializes in local and regional artists whose work would otherwise receive little exposure. Experimental theater, dance, film series, poetry and fiction readings are regularly scheduled. WPA also runs an artists' book gallery with volumes reflecting the latest in art trends.

Around the corner, Miya (720 11th Street NW) exhibits local and foreign "Third World" art. A "hair gallery" for elaborate cornrowing operates on the premises. Readings, film series, experimental theater, dance and music concerts are scheduled intermittently.

On the other side of NCFA, Jack Rasmussen's (313 G Street NW.) deals in contemporary art. Mickelson (707 G Street NW.) was on the downtown scene as a frame shop before becoming a gallery.

Tucked away throughout the downtown area are dozens of artists who rent space in the old buildings, whose high ceilings, huge windows and good light - and cheapness - make ideal studios. Some of the more popular ones are Atlas (527 9th Street NW); LeDroit (802 F Street NW), which houses the Studio Gallery; and Atlantic (930 F Street NW). The historic Rhodes Tavern (15th and F Streets NW) has housed artists' studios for years. Artisans display their wares through the spring, summer and part of the fall on the Streets for People Mall (F Street between 7th and 9th).

Try to persuade your eyes to stray above the storefront level, for there's a visual feast awaiting you. for those who like to discover traces of the original downtown of long ago, numerous fine old Federal, Victorian and Beaux Arts style buildings remain standing (many scheduled for renovation). My personal favorite is the somewhat tattered but elegant Lodge No. 15 of the B.P.O. Elks (919 H Street NW), built in 1908, its stately facade adorned with enormous elk heads at the top with antlers crowning the lamp columns.