The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior yesterday recommended prohibiting the National Endowment for the Arts from granting fellowships to individual artists. Such action would eliminate grants for individual designers, visual artists, composers, choreographers and creative writers.

But the senators also decided, after some debate, to bring up the issue again when the full appropriations committee meets. That is expected next Thursday.

The Senate subcommittee recommended total appropriations of $119.3 million for the NEA and $113.7 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Those figures are substantially higher than what Reagan had recommended for each agency, but substantially lower than what the House Appropriations Committee has recommended. In both agencies, the emphasis is on funding the state arts agencies -- which regularly get large block grants -- and programs utilizing matching-grant programs.

"Within lower allocations, we're trying to make the impact felt as widely as possible," said Senate subcommittee staffer Linda Richardson. "We're putting funds into groups and the states."

But Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) was opposed to the elimination of grants to individual artists. "They were rewriting the entire script," said Cochran. "The Congress has already said that [funding individual artists] was an appropriate function when the NEA was created."

That function, said Cochran, is "an essential and important functon of the NEA -- encouraging and providing financial support to young artists. Many have ended up successful. The screenwriter who wrote 'Breaking Away' had a NEA fellowship."

Cochran planned to introduce an amendment to the language of the subcommittee's legislation, but withdrew it at the end of the subcommittee's makeup meeting yesterday. However, said Cochran, "the votes were there."

Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho), the subcommittee chairman, who noted yesterday that he is not against funding individual artists, said the language in the bill may indeed be changed. "Sen. Cochran said we should't be so prescriptive," said Cochran. "I don't disagree with Sen. Cochran."

McClure said he wants to make sure the federal funds are allocated to the places where they will stimulate the most private dollars -- namely in state programs and programs where grants are matched by private dollars. "It seems we maintain a larger total investment that way," said McClure.

Individual artists do not have to match their grants.