The National Council on the Arts yesterday approved a proposal from the National Endownment for the Arts to create a pilot program called Artistic Associates. It would give experienced free-lance actors, choreographers, composers, designers and directors a chance to become residents with nonprofit theater companies.

The council (the body that advises the NEA) approved the idea on the first of its three days of quarterly meeting here, after hearing testimony which amounted to a portrait of the artist as a person always running from production to production, theater to theater, ususally with financial problems.

Free-lance theatrical artists are "still kind of gypsies," said Arthur Ballet, NEA program director for theater. Set designer Ming Cho Lee agreed: "If I'm not teaching -- which is not paying much anyway -- doing 10 productions is not even good enough. Working at a prime regional theater will pay $2,000 to $2,500. But it means 10 weeks of work, your own personal expenses. I don't know if I'm breaking even at all. I would love to have involvement with a theater that was not just on the product level."

The council also heard from lighting designer Arden Fingerhut, Long Wharf Theatre (New Haven, Conn.) director Ken Frankel and actress Michelle Shay who is now performing in the Broadway play "Home."

Funding for the program will come from the fiscal 1981 appropriation when Congress approves the NEA budget, and Ballet said it might be operative for the 1981-82 theater season. He said that artists chosen would probably spend an entire season with a theater, on a stipend, basically doing whatever they want to do.

"The artist wouldn't necessarily have to do whatever he usually does," said Ballet. "A choreographer might come in and just talk about movement. They would critique and advise on a regular basis. Because people usually just come in and do stuff and then leave. They can't look at the overall."

"Of all the years I've been in the theater, this is the first year I've made a living at it," said Shay. "Every year, I'm in the theater, I think, 'Why? Why do I do it?' I think art is the one thing beyond anything else in the world that can bring people together. All the politicians at conventions saying all sorts of things has much less meaning than Stevie Wonder singing a song."