Arthur Bartow, artistic director of the New Playwrights' Theatre for the past two years, will resign July 1 to become an associate director of the Theatre Communications Group in New York.

The resignation, widely anticipated for months, was confirmed yesterday and once again puts the future of the financially embattled theater at 1742 Church St. NW into question.

The board of trustees is interviewing candidates to replace Bartow. Unofficial sources said yesterday that the field had been narrowed to three -- two local artistic directors and one from New York. The final selection is expected by June 27.

Bartow has dramatically improved performance standards at the theater during his tenure, but the financial situation remains discouraging. In January 1985 the trustees, faced with mounting debts, announced the theater would close unless $250,000 were raised in 90 days. The theater met its goal, but only by extending the deadline to the end of the year.

Bartow said no significant fund-raising efforts have been implemented since then. Although this year's budget was cut to $400,000, he estimates that the theater may finish its current season with a deficit of $100,000. The theater's chief fundraiser, presentation of the annual Richard L. Coe Award (named for the drama critic emeritus of The Washington Post), is scheduled for tonight at Ford's Theatre. However, a spokesman said ticket sales for the event, which this year honors actress Rosetta LeNoire, have been sluggish.

Bartow came to New Playwrights' in July 1984, expecting to concentrate on its artistic mandate, which is the development of original scripts. But from the start, he said, his energies were diverted by the deteriorating financial situation. Ironically, the theater had its biggest success last winter with "Secret Honor," a drama about Richard Nixon imported from Los Angeles. Three original scripts, including the current "Something Blue," have fared less well at the box office.

"The experience has been a positive one overall," Bartow said. "And I am grateful for the extraordinary support given to New Playwrights' during the last two seasons." But he also said, "I haven't been able to do what I wanted to do artistically."

At the Theatre Communications Group, a service organization for 250 of the nation's nonprofit theaters, he will be in charge of programs for individual artists -- among them, the Alan Schneider Fund, which provides opportunities for young directors to develop their skills. Bartow will also finish a book, "The Director's Voice," scheduled for publication next spring.

Daniel Kiernan, president of New Playwrights', was unavailable for comment yesterday. But Bartow expressed his belief that the 125-seat theater, founded in 1972, "has to be totally restructured" if it is to survive. "I'm not the person to do that," he said.