A White House decision to be made "in the next few days" may cause the cancellation of a vast and costly Russian art exhibit scheduled to open in Washington in May.

A negative determination by the U.S. government would cost Control Data Corp., the American computer firm, the major portion of a $1 million investment -- and the National Gallery of Art its major summer show.

The Minneapolis computer firm for years has been eager to do business with the Russians. Under the provisions of an unusual accord with the Soviet Ministry of Culture the company two years ago agreed to print a catalog (with 400 color plates), insure the precious objects and pay the other costs of the touring Russian show.

"Art from the Hermitage Museum of Leningrad" was designed to survey all of the departments of that huge museum. Objects made of mammoth tusk 22,000 years ago, icons, carpets, Scythian gold works, medals and Old Master paintings were among the objects selected for the show.

Unless the U.S. government specifically determines that the mounting of the Russian show is "in the national interest," a move that now appears unlikely, the Hermitage exhibition may become the first cultural casualty of the new Cold War.

Governments, in recent years, have often traded loan shows as crowd-pleasing expressions of international good will. The establishment of diplomatic relations with East Germany brought us Dresden's treasures; warm dealings between presidents Nixon and Sadat led to the Tutankhamun show. But if art shows may be used as geopolitical handshakes, their cancellations also may be used as slaps.

President Carter, objecting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has announced that the United States would consider limiting both cultural exchanges and high technology dealings with the Soviet government.

Though Control Data's arrangements with the Ministry of Culture are not an agreement between governments, the president on Friday specifically told the nation that "most of the cultural and economic exchanges currently under consideration will be deferred."

The Hermitage exhibit may be vulnerable on both accounts. In announcing the exhibit, Control Data said that it expected profits from the show (from catalogue sales, ticket sales etc.) to be used by the Ministry of Culture "to buy a computer system for the hermitage."

Less prestigious cultural events, such as a concert or lecture, may proceed as scheduled without the U.S. government again stating its approval, but a show as visible as the Hermitage exhibit cannot be so finessed.

The Soviets have long refused to send their treasures here without first receiving what is known by statute as an official "waiver of judicial seizure." rWithout such a waiver, U.S. courts could place a lien, say, on a Rubens from the Hermitage in the interests of an emigrant Russian grocer who had filed suit to be repaid for a shop that he had lost. Such waivers are usually granted routinely. But before that can be done, the director of the U.S. International Communication Agency must rule officially, and so state in the Federal Register, that the exhibit thus protected is "in the national interest."

John E. Reinhardt, ICA's director, says that "determination has not yet been made. I know that a decision will have to be made shortly. We decide these things on a case-by-case basis. We, of course, would check with the State Department, the National Security Council and the White House before we decided either way."

Marshall Brement, a National Security Council staff member involved with Soviet affairs, says a decision on the waiver of judicial seizure for the Hermitage exhibit "will be taken within the next few days, certainly within a week."

Time is running out. Construction contracts for the exhibit's installation were to be signed by the National Gallery before the end of January. Both the Gallery's board and the directors of Control Data are scheduled to meet later this month. At both meetings the future of the show is to be discussed. l

The Hermitage exhibition has been organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, whose director, Samuel Sachs II, says "we're already well down the pike. We've conceived the Installation; we've planned educational materials, posters, audio-visual aids, we've had paper specially manufactured for the catalogue, and a press run of 250,000 was to have begun by the end of the month. Control Data already has spent a lot of money -- on plane trips to Leningrad, color transparencies, press kits, phone bills, you name it.

"Museums plan their schedules, say, four years in advance, and five of them -- in Washington, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Detroit -- have blocked out space for this one. If it is postponed, even for a month or two, it may never get off the ground."

It is obvious that art exhibits, even "blockbusters" like this one, have a smaller popular constituency than, say, the Olympic Games, but even so their displays can be powerfully symbolic.

The appearance of a major Soviet exhibit at the foot of Capitol Hill, advertised by bright red banners on Pennsylvania Avenue, might well be seen as contradicting presidential statements, especially during the thick of a national political campaign.

"Even if it is postponed," says J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery's director, "we still will have a wealth of first-rate exhibitions to offer to the public. 'American Light,' our Luminist show, might be extended through the summer; 'In Praise of America,' our display of American furniture and design, will be displayed at the same time. Meanwhile, "The American Renaissance' will be seen at the National Collection of Fine Arts. The three shows dovetail beautifully. I imagine we'll have an American festival in Washington next summer -- even if we have to do without that splendid Russian show."