A new director has been chosen for the National Museum of American Art, formerly the National Collection of Fine Arts. He is Charles C. Eldredge, 37, a University of Kansas art historian who, since 1971, has directed the Spencer Art Museum there.

His Washington appointment, effective July 1, 1982, suggests no major change in the museum's direction. Eldredge sees himself as an ally and a colleague of the late Joshua C. Taylor, the man he succeeds.

Their careers have much in common. Like Taylor, Eldredge has taught in the Midwest and, though a student of the past, has shown considerable interest in contemporary art. He has been active in the College Art Association (as editor of its Journal; Taylor was the association's president), and has done research on a relatively unknown late 19th-century American painter who chose to work in Rome (Taylor studied Elihu Vedder while Eldredge has written on Charles Walter Stetson, one of Vedder's proteges). In 1979, while at the museum on a Smithsonian Institution post-doctoral fellowship, Eldredge studied under Taylor, who died last April 26.

"I always admired Josh's willingness to look at works of art that others overlooked," Eldredge said. "I believe, as he did, in encouraging research on the visual arts in America. I plan, and hope, to continue Josh's mission."

Eldredge was born in Boston. After graduating from Amherst, he went to the University of Minnesota, where he received a PhD in art history in 1971 and wrote a thesis on Georgia O'Keeffe.

His publications include a catalog on Marsden Hartley's lithographs. He has also written, in "American Imagination and Symbolist Painting," a study of the affinities between the French Symbolists and their American contemporaries. Eldredge, who also has written on Ward Lockwood, a second-generation Taos, N.M., painter, describes his field of study as "American art between the Civil War and World War II."

Under his directorship, the Spencer museum in Lawrence, Kan., has exhibited such contemporary artists as Robert Irwin and Patrick Ireland. "In 1978 we did a show called 'Artists Look at Art,' " said Eldredge. "Last spring we did a show called 'Four Artists and the Map,' which included cartographic images by Roger Welch, Nancy Graves, Richard Long and Jasper Johns."

A score of candidates were invited to apply for the directorship of the National Museum; at least six were interviewed before Eldredge was selected. The search committee, chaired by Charles Blitzer, the Smithsonian Institution's assistant secretary for history and art, included Harry Lowe, the museum's acting director; James Woods, director of the Art Institute of Chicago; Jean Sutherland Boggs, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and George B. Tatum of the University of Delaware, who serves on the museum's governing commission.

David Curry, curator of American art at the Freer Gallery of Art, who worked at the Spencer as assistant director under Eldredge, describes his former boss as "an excellent choice. His leadership is strong, he's very good with people. He is one of the few men in the museum community who combines original scholarship with strong museum administration."

Eldredge's wife, Jane, an attorney, is a Republican member of the Kansas Senate.