The visual arts are not taught as a serious academic subject in most of the nation's public schools, according to a study released yesterday by the Getty Center for Education in Arts.

The study, "Beyond Creating: The Place for Art in America's Schools," is the result of a year-long research project commissioned by the center and conducted by the Rand Corp. on the state of arts education in public schools.

The center is an affiliate of the $2 billion J. Paul Getty Trust, based in Los Angeles.

Five educators studied seven school districts nationwide that are currently providing nontraditional arts programs, what Leilani Lattin Duke, director of the center, called "discipline-based arts education." The school districts singled out for praise are in Palo Alto, Calif.; Champaign-Decatur, Ill.; Hopkins, Minn.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Whitehall, Ohio; Virginia Beach; and Milwaukee.

These schools' nontraditional curricula differ from that taught in most public school arts programs by emphasizing art history, criticism and esthetics in addition to the more commonly taught studio experience.

"We found that many schools emphasized studio art to the exclusion of criticism and esthetics," said Duke.

"The nation's public schools have historically neglected art education," the report says. Many school districts have recently cut back or dropped their art curricula as part of the back-to-basics movement, viewing them as an expendable luxury.

The study urges a different attitude, saying. "Art education enhances our ability to fully experience art and beauty, while deepening our understanding of culture and history," the report says.

Adequate teacher training, financial support and the backing of school administrators and parents were cited as important factors in developing a strong arts curriculum.