The White House yesterday announced the formation of a task force on the arts and the humanities headed by three co-chairs: actor Charlton Heston, University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray and Daniel Terra, the ambassador-at-large-designate for cultural affairs.

The major purpose of the task force will be "to find ways the private sector might offset the cuts in the [National endowments for the Arts and the Humanities]," said Frank Hodsoll, deputy to White House Chief of Staff James Baker. Both endowments face 50 percent cuts in the Reagan budget.

"The president made his decision to go with it this morning," said Hodsoll about the task force, whose formation had been rumored for weeks.

"I am naming this task force because of my deep concern for the arts and humanities in America," Reagan stated in the press release issued by the White House yesterday. "Out cultural institutions are an essential national resource; they must be kept strong. While I believe firmly that the federal government must reduce its spending. I am nevertheless sympathetic to the very real needs of our cultural organizations and hope the task force will deliver to my desk by Labor Day a plan to make better use of existing federal resources and to increase the support for the arts and humanities by the private sector."

Heston, who is co-chairman of the American Film Institute and a former member of the National Council on the Arts, will chair the arts portion of the task force. Gray, a former member of the National Council on the Humanities, will chair the humanities portion. Terra will chair for the government. "He will represent the federal aspects of this," said Hodsoll.

"As I envision it," said Heston, reached yesterday in Los Angeles, "we're going to examine programs in the endowments and other federal grant programs in the arts and humanities to see how they might be made more effective. The main task [of these agencies] is to get more dollars to the goal. There are an awful lot of filing cabinets and people who put things in them. But I don't mean we're going to go around with a meat ax."

The vice chairman of the task force will be Barnabas McHenry, a New York lawyer who is general counsel to the Reader's Digest and to the Wallace Foundation in New York. "He's been a major, major force in this," said Hodsoll about McHenry, who came up with the idea of the task force.

About 30 people will serve on the task force, according to Hodsoll. "We have a list of names that we will be contacting to see if they're interested," said Hodsoll, who declined to name any of them."

However, other sources revealed that one prominent name on the list is that of opera singer Beverly Sills, now the general director of the New York City Opera Company. "That's my suggestion," said Heston. "I think it's an excellent one. I know her slightly and I know her strong commitment to the arts and her willingness to help the arts by attending boring meetings. I hope she will be able to become involved."

Other prominent names on the list, according to informed sources, are Arthur Mitchell, founder and co-director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Roger Stevens, head of the Kennedy Center and the first chairman of the NationalEndowment for the Arts.

Stevens, reached yesterday in New York, said he hadn't been contacted and he hadn't heard he was on the list. "But I'm not surprised that former chairmen of the National Endowment for the Arts would be on [the task force]. I started the endowment. I have a considerable investment in it."

Henry Geldzahler, commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, is on the list as well. "He said he's been invited to serve on the arts and humanities task force," said Colby Kelly, press officer for the Department of Cultural Affiars. "I beleive he's going to join, but I don't know that it's firm."

Hodsoll said the names were selected from four segments: the arts, the humanities, corporate executives, philanthropists and arts managers. "A number could qualify for serveral segments," he said. Asked how many were Democrats and how many were Republicans, Hodsoll replied, "I haven't the foggiest. We didn't look at that."

Heston said he hoped the selection would not take more than two weeks. "Hopefully we can meet in a couple of weeks," he said."My feeling is that we'll meet in Washington, stake out the parameters of our concerns and get to work."

the possibility of increasing support to state and local arts programs;

increasing the role of nongovernmental professional judgment in award-making; and

the desirability of converting the endowments into public corporations.

It had been widely rumored that the White House was considering the possibility of revamping the endowments as quasi-governmental agencies, perhaps modeled on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This was apparently an idea first brought up by McHenry.