Something strange seems to be happening in the Washington art market. According to the Smithsonian house organ, Totch, attendance at the seven Mall museums was down by 19 percent fore the first quarter of this year. Commercial galleries, however, report that sales are up.

Could it be that large numbers of Washingtonians -- often maligned by local dealers for being scant spenders -- are now buying instead of just looking?

"There's certainly a new surge of interest in buying prints," says Betty Duffy, proprietor of the Bethesda Art Gallery, 7950 Norfolk Ave. "There seems to be a whole new generation of collectors, often two-income couples in their 30s, who've become interested in prints and want to learn more."

Many of them were there this week, looking at prints by Martin Lewis, Howard Cook, Max Weber, Peggy Bacon, Rockwell Kent and dozens of other early 20th-century Americans the gallery specializes in. "It's because they've been asking so many questions," Duffy said, "that we decided to organize this show."

"Mediums of Printmaking" will indeed answer a lot of questions about the difference between woodcuts, wood engravings, lithographs, silkscreens, etchings, drypoints, acquatints, mezzotints and monotypes -- differences most people don't understand but are afraid to ask about. Here, each medium is explained in a concise label placed next to a group of prints illustrating the medium. You could learn all this from a book, or at the Museum of History and Technology's Graphic Arts Hall. But here, if a work beckons, you can buy it and take it home.

There are many fine prints in the show -- and more in boxes -- when viewers have learned enough to know what to ask for. Of special interest are some strong abstract woodcuts by Louis Schanker, crowded New York subway scenes by Bernard Brussel-Smith and a very funny lithography by Chet Le More called "Lord Mayer & Wife."

There are also some prints by formerly well-known artists whose reputations are being resurrected here, including rich black-and-white acuatints by virtuoso printmaker Jay McVicker and early silk-screens Philip Hicken made during the WPA days. "I cannot believe you actually sold those vintage prints," McVicker wrote to Betty Duffy a month ago. "I feel I have been rescued from oblivion," said Hicken. Both deserve the new exposure they are getting. The show continues through July; hours are 11 to 5 Wednesday through Saturday, Thursday until 8.

"There are more good artists coming along now than ever. It's a golden age coming up," says Phil Desind, passionate collector and owner of Bethesda's joyous jumble of realist art, Capricorn Gallery, 4849 Rugby Ave.

Right now, this already unusual gallery is doing something even more unusual. The current show, "Three Realists from Maine," was organized by one of Desind's customers, filmmaker Peter Vogt. Explains Desind, "He wanted to give these artists their first exposure here. And they were good, so we said yes. I'd do it for any customer who had a good idea."

On a hot day, these cool scenes of the Maine coast are particularly refreshing. Former illustrator William Baldwin has made a fine, Wyeth-like painting called "Maine Summer," wildflowers and all, that overcomes the tendency to picture-prettiness in some of his other work. Francis Wenderoth Saunders has also made some soft landscapes -- the sort of good, honest work we've come to expect from Maine.

But the real discovery of this show is John Ireland Collins, a painter who studied at the Cordoran (and with Karl Knaths when the Phillips Gallery used to have a school). These too are Maine scenes, but painted with something that crosses an American naivete with Edvard Munch, if that can be imagined. Milton Avery also comes to mind, particularly in the beautiful "White Caps." Collins is a fascinating painter, and though the rest of the show closes tomorrow, his paintings will continue on view. Gallery hours are 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday; Sundays 1 to 5.

Gallery H in Bethesda is a large and pleasant space located one flight up at 4923 Bethesda Ave. Opened a year ago to show works by lesser-known area artists, it emphasizes contemporary Asian-Americans, including the artist-owner Hangok Chang. She makes shoji screens for architectural use when she is not making her handsome, restrained ink paintings on cloth or rice paper.

The current show features recent work by Ai-Wen Wu Kratz, a Hong-Kong-born Washingtonian with impressive art credentials, including an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. She also studied at the Skowhegan School, and has taught and exhibited at the University of Missouri. She had one previous show in Washington at the now-defunct Huber Gallery.

Her show is ambitious, with large, energetic paintings, some incorporating collage. Dance and music are the propelling themes; the dance works are peopled by semi-abstracted forms rendered in bright colors. They suggest that Kratz is still working through various modes and degrees of abstraction in search of a distinctive statement.

Most satisfying is a large work called "Music on Painting," a three-part acrylic featuring calligraphic lines painted across the canvas as the artist listened to Mahler. Her use of color, improvised calligraphy and great gusto make this (and a study for it) the most satisfying work in the show. It continues through July 31.

The Diane Brown Gallery, 2028 P St. NW, is celebrating its last day on P Street today, with free champagne and cookies for all from 11 to 6. After foiur years at that location, Brown will reopen at 406 7th St. NW in September. Meanwhile she will hold forth in her loft, "Sculpture Space," at 52 O St. NW on Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 6, and by appointment.

Brown is the first of several dealers who will be leaving the P Street strip this summer to move into the large old building on 7th Street. It will also house Osuna, McIntosh/Drysdale, Cramer, Hawkeye Framers and -- from Georgetown -- the Lunn Gallery.