Adolpho Victoriano Nodal, the local art entrepreneur whom everyone calls Al, works 16 hours a day for $14,000 a year, and paints the walls himself. Yet he doesn't seem to mind. Downtown is his neighborhood, and his field is the new. The candid, energetic, 30-year-old Basque who was born in southern Cuba, raised in southern Florida and trained in San Francisco is today among the busiest and best art curators in town.

He is developing in Washington something hugely valuable, something that this city has found, and lost, and found again, often in the past -- an energized, eclectic, risk-taking museum of contemporary art.

It is Al Nodal who -- on a small budget of $70,000 a year -- runs the WPA, the Washington Project for the Arts, a meeting house, museum, testing ground and theater, which survives, and sometimes triumphs, behind a ragged storefront at 1227 G. St. NW.

Today the trendy name for such experimental, artist-run, cash-poor institutions is "alternative spaces." When applied to politics, or "lifestyles," the word "alternative" suggests something quite untested, opposed to the establishment, raw or slightly dopey. But in the visual arts at least, Nodal's WPA is not that sort of thing.

The WPA, under Al Nodal, is closer to the center of the art scene of this city than it is to the fringe.

Bob Wade's "Biggest Cowboy Boots in the World" were built at 12th and G Streets for the WPA. So were the graves and towers of the "Game of Flyers," the just-as-large though more mysterious work by Alice Aycock that is now on view there. Nodal is greatly fond of huge, surprising works of public outdoor sculpture. "That's what I like most," he says. "The public sees it happen. You're out there on the line." Washington's Nade Haley will soon begin to build one of her large pieces on that downtown corner. Washington's Rockne Krebs will meanwhile construct something called a "Cloud Park" on another lot nearby.

The first large exhibition to thoughtfully survey Washington photography of the '70s closed at the WPA a few weeks ago. "Metarealities," perhaps the first exhibit to attempt to order the various sorts of representational painting practiced in this city is currently on view there. So, too, is a delightful and important exhibition of local artists' books. These are not goofy projects. They might have been organized by any serious and ambitious museum of modern art.

The Corcoran's Jane Livingston describes Nodal as "a force." "He is passionate," she says. "He has the artist's temperament. And he is unselfish.In this business that is rare. Many people think alternative spaces need a funky neighborhood or a scruffy look. Al doesn't. Nor do I Physical tawdriness is a liability, especially for poor institutions. The more attractive, neat, cleaned-up the space, the better it will be for everyone concerned."

When, five years ago, it opened to the public, under Alice Denney, the WPA seemed devoted to the scruffy. Its walls were full of holes, its exhibits often messy. Haphazardly administered, it seemed an institution that might close down any day.

"i'd go to paint the walls," says Nodal, "and find we had no paint. I'd go to hang a show and find we had no nails. How I came to hate those pocked peg-board walls. My first show had an installation budget of $18."

But Denney has retired, and Al Nodal, the out-of-towner she discovered and picked as her replacement, has since cleaned up her act. "I am trying," he says, "to polish what she made."

"Al might care too much for fluff," says Alice Denny. "I care more for bare bones. What matters is the skeletons. He has made the WPA part of the establishment. And in a funny way, that is why I left. I'm not interested in the establishment. When I worry about the WPA, I worry about money. Al is doing a good job. I hope he can continue. I hope he doesn't kill himself with 16-hour days."

Nodal was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, in 1950. His father, a boat builder, took the family to Florida in 1957. Nodal grew up in Miami, and went to junior college there. He graduated in fine arts from Florida State University, and then went to California where he took a master's in museum studies from San Franscisco State. He was working as an artist ("the work I did in those days combined photographs and language"), and in a museum designing exhibitions, when he met Alice Denney and, at her invitation, joined the WPA.

They met for the first time at a hectic, crowded meeting of the College Art Association, one of those "meat markets" where hundreds of young artists and young academics go to beg for jobs. Denney had decided to go to the convention to look for an assistant. "More than 200 people," she remembers, "asked me for the job -- Byzantinists, specialists in Renaissance scores of printmakers and painters. Then in walked Al Nodal. I rely on my gut feelings. I gave him the job."

Both casual and eager, Nodal somehow looks like a working artist. He has a workman's hands; he affects no uptown airs. He is energetic and direct.Ask him to discuss the exhibits he has mounted, and he will tell you frankly which works he likes and which ones he regards as second or third rate. Al Nodal in Washington looks like an outsider who has learned to get along.

"Al's background was just right," says Walter Hopps. "In Florida he'd come to know an open situation. In northern California he found a different scene. The art scene there is lively, but it is also ghettoized, defensive, much more so than Washington's. Nodal here has opened all sorts of useful pathways, with the city government, with the downtown merchants, with the other art museums here, with artists and the press. He made friends with the town."

"Well, why compete?" asks Al Nodal. "Why depend on hostility? Someone has to do the high-risk programming. The dealers understand that here, so do the museums. They seem to understand that even if we flop, their scene has been sparked."

The WPA, although strapped for cash, no longer has the look of a renegade institution. It mounts two or three thoughtful shows each month, most of them with catalogues. ("We never published catalogues," says Denny. "We never had the cash.") Nodal plans to build at least five large public sculptures outside every year. On its large third floor, the WPA offers to the public dance programs and lectures and experimental plays. (In those fields, Nodal's intentions have been most often questioned. He has shown himself devoted to painting and to sculpture, but, at least so far, appears less committed to theater and the dance.)

The WPA's old building is due for demolition. Funds are always low. When Nodal, last December, discovered he had overshot his budget for the year by $1,700, he raised that sum himself and took no pay for three weeks. t

"As you get other people helping, you find you lose control," says Nodal. "The curators and dancers and artists who are working here all dissolve my power. I'm becoming obsolete. But that's just fine with me."

He lives on the top floor of an ancient downtown office building in a penthouse he inhabits with Beauregard and Cricket, two insistent cats. Most of his furniture was discovered on the street. "The style of the decor here is 'scavenger tech,' he says.

"When I think about the future, I get scared about the money -- though the business of Washington have kept this place afloat. The telephone company has done some of our printing, and let us use a Xerox machine. Arthur Andersen & Co. is doing our accounting. When Bob Wade was here putting up the boots, he spent seven weeks, without charge, in the Washington Hotel. The George Hyman construction company has been really good, so have Tyroc and Super Concrete and Crane Rental. One reason we get by is that real people help.

"We want to serve art.We want to serve the public. We want to be avant grade but not intimidating -- at least that's the idea."

Once outside the system, the WPA today resembles a traditional museum. Its staunchest friends include Joan Mondale, City Councilman John Wilson, many downtown businesses, many P Street gallery dealers, and Gene Davis, the stripe painter. If there is an art establishment in town, these people all are of it.Curators who work for other institutions here are its allies, not its opponents. They often write its catalogues and mount its serious shows. Former everything Walter Hopps, once curator of 20th century art at the National Collection of Fine Arts, once director of the cocoran, and before that the director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, has done two shows for Nodal. The Hirshhorn's Howard Fox, who organized "Directions," that museum's recent surfey of contemporary art, will do this summer's major exhibition at the WPA.

"Washington," says Joan Mondale, "is exceedingly fortunate to have Al Nodal. He's energetic, innovative, resourceful, and concerned with the highest quality. He is beginning to develope corporate support. He links artists and the public. He cares about his neighborhood. He's also very nice."

Painter Gene Davis, vice chairman of the WPA board, is now printing, with Lou Stovall, a series of striped pictures which he will give to the institution. Anyone who donates $250 -- and thus becomes a Friend of the WPA -- will be given, as they wish, a Marp Power photograph, a graphic by Steve Ludlum, a young Washington painter, or the Davis print. "I like the WPA -- on principle," says Davis. "If you are serious about new art, it's a place you have to see."

Hirshorn curator Fox, who says his summer exhibition at the WPA will deal with "stacking, rigging, and binding in contemporary sculpture," says Nodal "has made the WPA nationally important. He shows us art we cannot see even in museums that are trying to keep up. It is not that our museums are afraid to show the work the WPA exhibits. It's a question of quantity. aThere is so much good new art around that even large museums cannot show it all."

"One thing that Al Nodal does very well," says Fox, "is display local art in a national context.You are likely there to see new work from California, or from Texas, or from upstate New York, beside art from Washington. "And he has put the place on what I call a professional footing. The lighting is right, the labels are right. He's publishing catalogues. He knows what he's about." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Al Nodal with Manon Cleary's "Roger Before a Rose Garden": "My first show had a budget of $18." By Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post