The poet Sterling Brown came on stage at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater to accept one of the first annual Mayor's Art Awards: "I was born in Washington in 1901. I've seen the growth of the arts in Washington, and in my own little way I helped nurse them along . . . I'm deeply grateful." He chuckled, grasping his award. "I think I've got a lot of people fooled -- but at my age I ain't givin' nothing back."

The audience howled and jumped to its feet applauding -- one of several times a standing ovation was the order of the evening for the awards presentation last night. Some of Washington's best-known and most fervent artists and art organization officials came to the stage to pick up their awards -- sculptures in clear plexiglass designed by Jeffrey Bigelow.

Twelve local arts figures and organizations were honored at the ceremonies sponsored by the Kennedy Center and the D.C. Commission on the Arts. The awards carry no cash stipend, but function as morale boosters for the local arts community, which is plagued by financial problems.

"When I first came on the commission," said Heidi Berry, vice chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts, who conceived the idea of the art awards, "we scheduled a series of meetings with former panelists [the experts who decide which grant applicants will get funds from the commission] to find out what was right and what was wrong with the commission. We heard the same refrain over and over: Local artists don't get enough funding and they get very little recognition. Well, we would never be able to give them a lot more money, but we could give them more recognition."

Winners included Melvin Deal of the African Heritage Drummers and Dancers. "We're living in a time now when artists more than ever are called upon to be more than just artists. There are children who think you can't make music with these instruments," he said, pointing to the silent instruments of the jazz combo in the background. "I go into schools and children say, 'Where's the switch?'"

There was an award for abstract painter Gene Davis ("I'm totally speechless") and another for Arena Stage founder Zelda Fichandler, accepted for her by her husband Tom. He told a story of their first theater building -- on Washington's "skid row," where the actors exited one side and ran around the block to make their entrance on the other side.

"Once we were doing 'Alice in Wonderland,'" said Fichandler, "and the actors were wearing these grotesque costumes. One night it was raining, and my job was to run around the block with an umbrella over the actor. Well, at one point we were running around -- you remember that neighborhood around Ninth and New York -- when two winos saw us. I don't think they've had a drink since."

Mayor Marion Barry and his wife, Effi, presented awards, and there were more than a few comments about the Monday evening hoax report that the mayor had been shot. "I have a message from Roger Stevens to Mayor Barry," said Lily Guest, chairman of the Friends of the Kennedy Center. Stevens did not attend because he is recuperating from heart surgery. "'Your Honor, I'm glad,' to quote from Mark Twain . . . 'that the reports of your death are greatly exaggerated.'"

TV newscasters Gordon Peterson and Renee Poussaint hosted the evening. Peterson talked about the arts in Washington and spoke about "the current mayor . . . and I'm glad to say he is the current mayor." Peterson, who read the special bulletin on Channel 9 Monday night saying Barry had been host, told the group that he was "embarrassed" about that. "I know the mayor is angry," said Peterson.

Barry, in his remarks, said, "I'd like to indicate how glad I am to be here. I won't say anything nasty about Gordon or Renee. This is our fun night. I'll wait until tomorrow."

Barry talked about how the arts have flourished in Washington. "I think the growth of the arts here is so great that some have proclaimed us the new Athens of the West," said Barry. "I'd prefer to call us the new Washington." He also pledged to keep arts funding going. "I've added money to the arts budget every year," he said, "and I plan to add more." a

The evening's ceremonies were interspersed with mellow jazz tunes from the Hilton Fenton Quartet and some strong dancing and singing.

A jury of local arts, business and civic leaders was assembled to judge the 388 entries. "Anybody could nominate anybody in any category," said Peggy Cooper Cafritz. "We felt it was important to open it up to the public."

The other award winners were:

David Lloyd Kreeger, for his patronage of a variety of organizations, including the Corcoran Gallery and the National Symphony Orchestra; Rev. Gilbert Hartke, who started the drama department at Catholic University; Franz Bader, one of the first gallery owners to sell local art; Roy Bryce-Laporte and Ralph Rinzler, both of the Smithsonian Institution and both involved with the annual folklife festivals, particularly with local cultural groups performing in them.

The jury also awarded sculptures to two organizations: The Bilingual Gala Hispanic Theatre and the Washington Project for the Arts, a pioneer in art downtown.

Joshua Taylor, recently deceased head of the National Museum of American Art, was presented a special award posthumously for his work in the city.

In addition to the Mayor's Art Awards, the 1981 Cultural Alliance Community Service Award was presented posthumously to local musician Tony Taylor.