A number of dejected artists told the D.C. Commission on the Arts at a "gripe" session yesterday that they were confused about the commission's funding priorities and frustrated by the lack of money.

"As a white person in this city, I think it's been very difficult to get funding," said dancer and choreographer Jan Van Dyke, an important force in the Washington dance world. "I guess I feel the problem of trying to decide where the emphasis in this city will be -- on the community or on the arts."

"It's more than a race thing," said Van Dyke later. "It's art for community's sake versus art for art's sake. There's been emphasis on community art. That's my gripe."

Van Dyke's bid for funding was rejected by the commission during the last funding cycle. Yesterday, sounding less bitter than frustrated, she said she was returning to New York "for a lot of reasons."

"What would it take to get you to stay in Washington?" Peggy Cooper, chair of the commission, asked Van Dyke.

"Well, we're having space problems; we're having money problems . . ." Van Dyke said, shrugging and trailing off.

So was every group of dancers, musicians, and theater people who came during designated periods of the day for the first in a series of roundtable forums sponsored by the commission, which is the arts funding agency for the District. The purpose was to hear the problems and needs of artists.

Today's roundtable forums, lasting from noon to 6:30 p.m., will include artists in the areas of literature (noon to 2 p.m.), visual arts (2:15-4:15), and crafts (4:30) at the Center for Municipal and Metropolitan Research at 1717 Massachusetts Ave. NW in Room 403.On Thursday, from noon to 2 p.m., the commission will hear artists in media and then, from 2:15 to 4:15 p.m., artists during special projects.

Complaints from dancers included the fact that not one commissioner is an expert an dance. "It would really help if someone on the commission was familiar with dance in the community," said Melane Kinney, manager of Dance Project Inc.

Dancers, as well as musicians, also stressed that they wanted panelists -- who make recommendations on grants to the Commission on the Arts -- to actually visit the groups requesting funds.

"People who want to do justice to the artists really need to see their work," said Liz Lerman, artistic director of the Dance Exchange.

"This reality is that when you're an artist on a panel," said Commissioner Harry Poe, who was at the forum, "you too have to work and produce. The panelists don't have a chance to get around to see all the performances. There have to be other criteria besides site visits."

And the question of money -- as in what type of group gets it -- was still everpresent, provoking the following reply from a commissioner.

"Our problem is -- are we going to fund the biggest company to keep them going, or are we going to go to the the little guy and give him a helping hand?" says Poe. "This happens over and over. The middle guy gets hurt."

Artists in the theaters cried out for space. "We've been renting space from the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) for several years at a very small price," said Al Nodal, director of the Arts. "But RLA just raised our rent 400 percent."

The commissioners looked surprised, and Nodal repeated it. He said he had no time to look for other quarters. "To go out and look for another space, I'd have to stop a whole production."

Cooper told the dance participants, after several hours of the forum, "What I hear you saying is that you need cold hard cash, and I don't have it. I think the one thing I can do to most advance the arts is to get more money for art groups. Right now, I'm having a series of meetings with people on how to get more money out of the Hill."