Patrick Hayes, the founder and managing director of the Washington Performing Arts Society, announced yesterday that next May 1, he will assume an emeritus position and turn over the active direction of the WPAS to Douglas Wheeler, who has been its executive director for the past 12 years.

At a press conference in the board room of the National Press Club, the ruddy-cheeked Hayes, 72, said, "There will be a small ceremony in our office. We will shake hands as they do in the Navy, and the power will be transferred to my good friend and colleague, Douglas Wheeler. And my wife and I will leave for four months in Europe, where I will start a book."

The popular impresario, whose name and career has been synonymous with the history of the performing arts in Washington, was in an ebullient mood. As he explained his decision to move to emeritus status, he paraphrased Shakespeare: "When your tide is high, seize it. We are now talking about the present, which is highly successful, and the future. In the fall, after a four-months' sabbatical, I'm going to keep right on working as I have been and earn my stipend."

Jean Sisco, president of the WPAS board of directors, said Hayes would continue "as a consultant and particularly in fund-raising, which, with today's administration's views, is more important than ever."

Wheeler, a graduate of American University, came to the Washington Performing Arts Society after serving as press representative of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in New York State and the Blossom Music Center, summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra. Prior to that time, he worked for the New York concert management, Judson, O'Neill, Beall and Steinway.

It is 40 years since Patrick Hayes first came to Washington. On Jan. 8, 1941, he was hired to be the manager of the National Symphony Orchestra, which was then 10 years old. His salary was $4,800 a year and the musicians had a 26-week contract.

After serving in the Navy, Hayes returned to the NSO in 1946, but early in 1947 left the orchestra to open the Hayes Concert Bureau, which became the principal concert management in Washington until 1966 when it was converted to the nonprofit Washington Performing Arts Society.

"We are presenters," Hayes reminded his listeners yesterday, describing the purpose of the society. "We are the middlemen. We bring the artists to the audiences. We now have a budget of $2.5 million."

In his 35 years of presenting artistic events, Hayes has brought representatives of music, theater and dance to Washington. He has organized programs in Riverside Stadium, Uline Arena; the Capitol, Shubert and Belasco Theaters; Constitution Hall, Lisner Auditorium and the Kennedy Center. Under eight U.S. presidents he championed civil rights in years when blacks were not permitted in some of the theaters and auditoriums of the city. He has fought for the survival of theaters threatened with destruction and has been a signal figure in urging Congress and presidents to give official support to the arts in this country.