A group of 63 black artists, scholars, and civic leaders sent actor Charlton Heston a telegram this weekend criticizing his comments earlier this month on certain federal arts programs that have often supported minority artists. Heston was recently designated a chairman of the new White House task force on arts and humanities.

The telegram -- a 2 1/2-page text released over the weekend by the National Urban Coalition -- was a reaction to Heston's comments on the Expansion Arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts. The program is designed to reach smaller arts groups, many of which are minorities.

"We are dismayed by reports that you have stated apparently without serious study, that the programs of [the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities] that are most active in supporting work of minority artists and scholars should be eliminated," wrote the group, which included writer James Baldwin, actors Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones and Brock Peters, and such civic leaders as M. Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition, and Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP.

"To define their work as 'recreational,'" said the telegram, referring to a statement Heston made in a June 9 interview with The Washington Post, "and to consign their support to the Department of Health and Human Services would be literally to add insult to injury."

Heston, reached this weekend by phone in Los Angeles, responded, saying, "They add insult to injury by assuming minority artists and scholars are capable only of recreational arts. I don't believe that."

In response to the group's request for a meeting between minority artists and the task force, Heston said, "I'm glad they sent the telegram, and I'd be delighted to meet with them. I know most of the people who sent it."

Heston this weekend defended his sensitivities to minorities and the arts. "I have paid my dues in civil rights," he said. "I've marched with Dr. King. I was head of the arts group in the Washington march. I was there with Dr. King and Marlon Brando and Jimmy Baldwin. I put in my time on the picket line in Oklahoma City."

When asked in the June 9 interview what he thought of the NEA's Expansion Arts program, Heston said, "I said at the time it was created that, while a desirable series of programs, it would be more appropriate under HEW. Dou you define the arts as recreation? I think perhaps one of the functions of this task force will be to determine whether the endowments should involve themselves in recreational arts and humanities funding. Because a program of street dancing is perceived to be a good idea doesn't necessarily mean it should be funded by the NEA."

Heston stated this weekend that not all Expansion Arts programs are "recreational." "I'm inclined to think it includes more recreational arts, and I don't think those are properly the function of an endowment with a reduced budget," said Heston. "Nor do I think that Indians or Hispanics or blacks are more associated with recreational arts than other people. That's a racist attitude, and I don't want to be associated with it."

The telegram's authors defended the Expansion Arts program as having been "key in the development of new art forms and new talent."

Heston responded, "It seems to be everybody else's opinion that Expansion Arts is recreational. I would agree that they've been key in the development of new art forms and new talent."