Frank Hodsoll, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has held back several dozen grants already approved by peer panels or the National Council on the Arts for further information or, in some cases, further panel review.

Hodsoll's action is a departure from the operation of the previous chairman, Livingston Biddle, who in most cases relied on the council's judgment. Program directors at the funding agency and one former NEA official say it is within the purview of the chairman to question the grants and ask for more information.

"I'd like to know what you think a head of an agency should be doing," said Hodsoll to inquiries from a reporter. "You want to be comfortable with something before you sign your name to it."

While the chairman signs off on all grants, the panels and the council make the decisions about the artistic quality of a project. Hodsoll said his problems with the grants "involve a question of guidelines, not quality," although he noted that he has had some questions concerning quality as well. Those questions have apparently been answered to his satisfaction.

One question he has raised, Hodsoll said, was, "Are we in the education business?"

He explained, "Where the function of the grantee was in large part educational -- outside of the Artists in Education or the professional education programs -- we had questions."

"I'm not rejecting any grants," said Hodsoll. "I'm sending them back to panel."

Hodsoll, who says he has personally reviewed over 2,000 grants in the last three months, has raised questions "throughout" the endowment's programs. "Every single program in this agency has come in for questions," he said.

Out of almost 2,000 grant recommendations made by review panels -- the groups of experts who judge applications in various artistic disciplines -- 19 in the area of theater will be returned to a panel next month for further discussion, according to Robin Murphy, acting director of the theater program. The next step usually would have been to send these grants on to the National Council on the Arts, which meets here next week. The council, a presidentially appointed body, would have decided whether to approve those grants.

Hodsoll also had questions on "a number" of the approximately 550 grants that had been approved at previous council meetings. "I start by going back to the staff," he said. "That usually solves it. . . . I probably had questions on 80 or 90. Now it's down to 30 or 40. I probably won't send them all back to panel. . . . Some of the grants we're making do not appear to be within our guidelines. I may raise those questions at the council."

Murphy said that two theater grants, already approved by the council, are "under advisement -- not really being held, but still on the chairman's desk."

Mary Ann Tighe, a former deputy chairman of the NEA under Livingston Biddle, said "it was quite common to send back a grant already through panel review to the staff for more elucidation. But it was generally held that the panels' views were not overturned except by the council. Liv never sent anything back to a panel. The council sent things back."

However, according to Tighe, Biddle would sometimes suggest a "borderline" panel-approved grant be brought to the council's attention.

As for grants approved by the council, Biddle "never questioned anything the council did," said Tighe. "Oh, sure, they were read. I read them. Other deputy chairmen read them. Sometimes we asked for more explanation. But Liv and the council had approved the guidelines. It would be silly to question the guidelines."

Tighe, who is now vice president for programming at ABC Cable, said of Hodsoll, "I think it's terrific that he's digging down deep and getting to learn. I just hope his education isn't at the expense of arts groups."

No program directors complained for the record about Hodsoll's actions. "He is the chairman," said Murphy. "It's his prerogative. He wants it to make sense to him. He doesn't want any breezy answer. I admire him for that. . . . He's told me, 'I just want to know more about about it before I sign my name to it.' "

Murphy described the 19 grants that will be returned to a panel sitting Feb. 17-18 as "very experimental theater companies. It's not your classic theater." The theaters all have budgets of $100,000 to $400,000 -- what the NEA calls "intermediate" theaters. "While he's passed quite a few intermediate theaters," said Murphy, "he still has questions. While I write some comments, a panel is far better equipped to deal with his questions. He'll meet with the panel and the dialogue will be good, I think."