A hundred key government and private arts bureaucrats, debating whether America needs a ministry of culture to send U.S. artists overseas, were warned by author and TV host Alistair Cooke yesterday that "where there is total government sponsorship of arts [there are] totalitarian governments, because they have a message to get across."

Cooke urged the members of Arts International, a Washington-based foundation that promotes international arts exchanges, of which Cooke became the chairman yesterday, to forget about developing an American cultural image in favor of letting things "tumble where they may." He spoke to the group's annual meeting at the Kennedy Center.

"Sponsorship of the arts in the U.S. has been overwhelmingly private" and with current government budget problems will continue to be so, Cooke said. "And I don't think this is a very bad thing."

The group had spent the morning thrashing around the ministry of culture idea and deciding, generally, that the United States, with its traditions of cultural pluralism, doesn't need one.

Not everyone was against the idea, however, and some of the conferees thought one already existed.

"The National Endowment for the Arts is our ministry of culture," said Susan Wadsworth, director of Young Concert Artists.

"I'm sure [NEA chairman] Frank Hodsoll would love to hear that," said Howard Klein for the Rockefeller Foundation.

"That's a terrifying thought," said John M. Ludwig, executive director of the National Opera Institute.

There seemed to be a consensus that more federal money should be made available to send American artists overseas, but without propagandistic strings attached.

"They are prepared to accept more active government participation and less afraid of government controls," said Arts International's president, Peter Solmssen.

"Fair enough," said Cooke when he heard Solmssen say this after lunch. "You just have to watch out. There always is a danger, if government intervenes, of limiting your horizons."

Cooke said he agreed to chair the group because Solmssen asked him. He replaced Michael Straight, a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under Nancy Hanks. Straight, Hodsoll and several others who were scheduled to attend the conference were in New York yesterday attending a memorial service for Hanks, who died Jan. 7.

Yesterday's conference was sponsored by SMC Copr., whose president, Paul H. Elicker, told the group frankly, "Our company supports the arts because we seek to become better known...It's simple as that...We offer money. You offer prestige."

But Elicker said corporations wouldn't be as interested in paying to send artists overseas because the "visibility" of such acts wouldn't be high domestically. He suggested Congress give companies tax credits -- not just tax deductions -- to send American artists abroad.

Much of the talk centered on the United States Information Agency and its $2 million budget for traveling artists and exhibitions. "This is an embarrassment," said Charles L. Reinhard, director of the American Dance Festival, of the $2 million figure.

Most of the conferees seemed to think the budget should be increased from $2 million to $10 million or even $100 million, but there was a great deal of concern about the possible political or propagandistic use of the money.

Alwin Nikolais, the artistic director of his own dance theater, said the USIA has for years been providing about 10 percent of the budet for hiis group's foreign tours. But he said the USIA wants groups to go to countries that are troublesome in order to make a good impression. "Artists make a better impression than politicians," he said.

USIA representatives at the conference denied there was any such policy. "I can assure you there's no correlation. We're not that organized," said the USIA's John Coppola. He added, however, that the agency has funds enough to sponsor only 15 to 20 American tours or exhibitions annually in foreign countries.

Cultural officers in U.S. embassies abroad are often inadequate, said Martin Friedman, director of the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. He said many are "simply not qualified" and are interested in showing foreigners "safe and forgettable ... pallid and boring" work by U.S. artists.

This view was seconded by Jose Neistein, a Brazilian who runs the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute in Washington. He said the United States tends to send abroad "shows that don't represent the best of America or the real ferment of the country." The shows and exhibits, he said, tend to be conservative."Send less, but always send the best," he advised.