David Bell, a 35-year-old New York-based director/choreographer, has been named to the newly established post of artistic director at Ford's Theatre, assuming duties that up to now have been handled by Ford's executive producer Frankie Hewitt.

Hewitt, who made the announcement today, called Bell's appointment "long overdue" and said that it would allow her to focus her energies on raising money for a production fund, establishing an endowment and promoting the theater's yearly television gala.

Bell will begin his new assignment on Jan. 1 at an annual salary of $36,500. His first task will be to direct the revival of "Godspell," which is scheduled to start previews on March 8. He will also scout for plays, oversee casting and develop new musicals for the theater, which this season has been relying heavily on return engagements of past successes.

Bell's contract gives him the option to direct two shows a year at Ford's, but it leaves him free to work elsewhere if there is no conflict with his "primary obligation to Ford's."

Both Hewitt and Bell agreed in a recent interview that the appointment does not signal a change in the sort of fare that Ford's presents. "In essence we'll be doing what we've been doing all along," Hewitt said, "but we'll be doing it better."

"I think we want to keep the kind of eclectic season and the broad audience that Ford's has always had," Bell said. "We don't want to have the same audience for every show we do." Still, it can be expected that Bell's background in musical theater will be a significant factor in Ford's future programming.

As the resident director of the Lincolnshire Marriott Theatre in Chicago, he staged 20 musicals over the last five years. His direction and choreography for such shows as "Little Me," "They're Playing Our Song," "Cabaret" and "South Pacific," won him seven Joseph Jefferson awards, the Chicago equivalent of Broadway's Tonys. For the Lincolnshire Marriott, Bell also staged the American premiere of "Windy City," a musical version of "The Front Page," and the world premiere of his own musical about George M. Cohan, "Give My Regards to Broadway."

Bell's appointment concludes what Hewitt called an "unofficial two- or three-year search" for someone to take over the artistic obligations of the theater, adding that "his artistic sensibilities are right for Ford's." Until now, Ford's has had no resident artistic personnel, only a general manager, assisting Hewitt. She termed her working relationship with Bell "a partnership, born of mutual agreement" about the kind of shows suitable for Ford's.

"We both will take 100 percent responsibility for the season," Bell said.

Ford's operated last season on a budget of approximately $2.8 million. Box-office receipts brought in $2 million; the rest came from contributions, grants and funds provided by the National Park Service. With Bell attending to artistic matters, Hewitt said she now hoped to be able to increase Ford's unearned income by $500,000.

"The money is out there. I know where it is and I know how to get it," she said. "Ford's has many powerful friends all over the country, who are willing to support it in major ways. But you can't go after them helter-skelter. That takes time. The trouble is that I've been trying to be in three places at the same time for so long."

The son of a Yale sociology professor and an artist, Bell attended Yankton College in South Dakota, and received a master's degree in directing and playwriting from the University of Virginia. He was an instructor in dance and acting at the University of Nebraska, and during the 1977-78 season, he directed three musicals -- "George M," "Brigadoon," and "The Music Man" -- for the Harlequin Dinner Theater in Rockville.

Hewitt met Bell last spring, when he was brought in as an adviser on Ford's original Civil War musical, "On Shiloh Hill." That show, judged unsalvageable, was abandoned after its Washington run, but Hewitt ended up signing Bell to direct "Godspell" this season. After continuing talks over the summer, Hewitt said she decided to hire him as artistic director. Ford's board of trustees approved the appointment last week.

Ford's next show, the annual production of "A Christmas Carol," opens Nov. 28. It will be followed by the Negro Ensemble Company's production of "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" and then "Godspell," for which composer Stephen Schwartz is contributing a new opening number. A previously scheduled engagement of the New Vic's "The Three Musketeers" has been canceled.

Bell called Ford's "a perfect forum for what I'm about."

"I warn you," laughed Hewitt. "We're both optimists."