It seems nothing can escape man's desire to see whether people and matter can survive in space. Ellery Kurtz, a New York artist who has lived in the East Village since "before it was so popular," and fellow New Yorker Howard Wishnow, an environmental psychologist, have devised an experiment to determine the effect of space flight on fine-arts materials. Through NASA's Get Away Special Program, Kurtz and Wishnow are paying $3,000 to rent a 5-cubic-foot canister that will be attached to the cargo bay of the space shuttle Columbia on its Dec. 20 flight.

For the five-day mission, the duo is sending up a raw linen canvas, two pieces of single-primed canvas, two pieces of double-primed canvas, two paintings on single-primed linen canvas and two paintings on double-primed canvas. Similar items will be kept on Earth as controls during the experiment. Kurtz and Wishnow hope to identify the effects of accelerated degradation on organic-based oil materials.

The project grew out of a discussion Kurtz and Wishnow were having about what people might take with them to make a spaceship seem more like home. "It was our conviction," says Kurtz, "that cultural items might prove to be of value in approximating that kind of environment." 'Treasure' Seekers Abound

The National Gallery of Art's "Treasure Houses of Britain" continues to draw sizable crowds. The exhibition, which has a capacity of 700 people per hour, is experiencing "close to" capacity crowds, says Neill Heath, gallery information officer. Between 5,000 and 5,500 people move through the exhibition each day, Heath says, with the evening hours in general being the "lightest." "Treasure Houses" is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Lectures about the "Treasure Houses" exhibit continue at 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays and 11 a.m. Saturdays in the East Building auditorium. Tomorrow and Saturday, Philip Leonard will lecture on "The Dignified Palladian House." The lectures are free and do not require reservations. For more information, call 842-6690. Supporting the Arts in D.C.

The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities last week awarded 96 grants worth $434,500 to city artists and arts organizations. Fellowship awards of $2,500 went to 62 Washington artists for "outstanding achievement" in crafts, dance, literature, media, multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary arts, music, professional training in the arts, theater and visual arts. The commission also distributed 27 impact grants, ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, to assist arts groups with operating expenses, and $1,000 recognition grants to seven arts groups, to "promote public acknowledgement and provide support for the cultural resources of Washington." A complete list of grantees can be obtained from the DCCAH, 724-5613. Art for the Underground

Starting today, commuters descending into the Friendship Heights Metro station will have something more to look at than a white granite wall. Suspended above the entrance is a 50-foot-long wood and wire sculpture that resembles a ship's hull. The untitled sculpture, by New Yorker Loren Madsen, is being installed today; it is made of Douglas fir, redwood and stainless-steel aircraft cable. Shainman Opens N.Y. Gallery

Jack Shainman, who opened the Jack Shainman Gallery in Adams-Morgan one year ago, is opening a second gallery in New York City's East Village. "There's an incredible energy in the East Village," says Shainman. The new gallery, at 500 E. 11th St., often will showcase artists concurrently with Shainman's Washington gallery. Shainman says the New York space will allow him to put his artists "in another context." He says he wants to "join forces with the New York art world, rather than trying to fight it." He added that he hopes to take advantage of New York being an "international and national market" for artworks. The new gallery opens Jan. 11. Washington Poets on Tape

The Watershed Foundation, described by its executive director, Alan Austin, as "the world's largest producer and distributor of poetry cassettes," has come out with a product close to home. "Natives, Tourists, and Other Mysteries: Emerging Washington Poets," edited by Anne Becker, is a double-cassette set featuring the new work of 28 area poets. You may know the Watershed folks better as publishers of the now defunct Black Box magazine, an audio anthology of recorded poetry. Watershed, along with its poets, celebrated this latest release with a party Friday night at Herb's restaurant. Austin expects the tapes to be available in local bookstores sometime this week. To order the cassette anthology, call 347-4823, or send a $15.95 check to Watershed Foundation, P.O. Box 50145, Washington, D.C. 20004. American Pottery at U-Md.

"New Vistas: American Art Pottery, 1880-1930, From the Cooper-Hewitt Museum" continues through Dec. 1 at the University of Maryland Art Gallery; works on view come from the William and Marcia Goodman Collection, recently donated to the Cooper-Hewitt. Call 454-2763 for information.