The champagne ran dry inside, the traffic jammed outside and Washington's art community got a dose of adrenalin last night as 2,000 people jammed in to see what all that squabbling at the Corcoran was about, anyway.

What they heard was not squabbling, but joyous rumblins that this long-awaited and controversial realist exhibition had finally set off fireworks on the local art scene.

"I love it," said Jane Livingston, Corcoran curator. "The more talk, the more exhibits, the more excitement."

"Any trouble at all is better than no trouble," added Allen Apple, one of the local artists who showed as a protest in the "The Laundry" show in Adams-Morgan. You could tell who he and the others were by the dry-cleaning tags they had prominently safetypinned to their clothes.

"Our silent protest," explained Bill Lombardo, another "Laundry" artist who wore dry-cleaning tag number 566 on his tweedy coat. "Either that, or people think I'm too dumb to take it off."

The controversy, to boil weeks of flying gossip into a nutshell, centered around show curator Clair List and whether the nine artists she selected for the "realist" exhibit were really realists.

Some said yes, a lot said no. But last night, nobody much troubled with it. The debate seemed over and the champagne, in the beginning at least, flowed.

Not, however, for Michael Clark, one of the artists in the show who said he can't bear to drink at openings. Matter of fact, he said he can't bear openings period.

"They paid me to come to this one," he insisted, then reflected a moment. "Nah, they didn't pay me. But I did come over in a limo. It prevented my hair from getting messed up. You know, all these people expect artists to look a little weird. So you gotta get fixed up."

Clark, who had traded one of his paintings for the Italian plaid suit he wore, was among several hundred people who chose to ignore the black-tie instructions on the invitation. But then, down jackets, tennis visors and pearl tiaras were perfectly acceptable at this museum that once, in the '60s, had a show of hanging T-shirts.

Umbrellas, however, were absolutely not acceptable. People who brought them in dripping had to wait in long lines to check them. "They don't want you to stab the art," said one young woman in a purple ostrich feathered affair. She was waiting in line, near a John Frederick Kensett landscape of a gently-lit autumn scene, a scene that was considerably more idyllic than the one at the Corcoran.

About 10 p.m. or so, two men entered carrying bunches of baby blue, yellow and pink ballons. One of them had a briefcase. They strode with purpose through the crowd, which parted for them, and continued their journey up the stairs. Their destination: artist Manon Cleary.

"We got all these balloons at a dinner party," said Tom Teal, coordinator of speechwriting at the White House, who didn't explain what sort of dinner party it was where one received balloons. "We just thought she'd like to have them."

In an adjoining room was Clair List, woman of the moment. In a conservative pink dress and a bunch of pearls, she certainly didn't look like someone who had instigated an artistic brouhaha.

"Sure, I was a little frightened by what was happening," she said. "But I feel good now."

If you had been standing next to her and glanced to the left, you would have seen Genna Watson's sculptures of some rather seriously disfigured human beings.

"I think they're rather nice," said Ann Vanderpool, a Corcoran trustee and one of the few establishment socialites in evidence. Ah, but would she put them in her living room? "I have a tiny little Georgetown house," she replied.

At any rate, the figures were hard to ignore. Guests found themselves stepping over maimed legs and so forth in order to move on to the rest of the exhibit.

Corcoran director Peter Marzio, who did adhere to the black-tie dress code, loved the controversy. "It's debate," he said, "and debate is positive. cThe Corcoran took the lead and chose nine artists and said, "These are the nine artists we've chosen.' If people are hurt and angry, that's part of it." n