How does an artist launch a career? Sooner or later, they all need an outlet, feedback and -- with luck -- some validation. But where to begin?

The only answer used to be to enter area shows or to go slogging around from one dealer to another, learning early on to deal with rejection. By the mid-'70s, however, artists had begun taking matters into their own hands, and artist-run, not-for-profit "alternative spaces" were sprouting all over the country.

One of them was the Arlington Arts Center, which took over the abandoned Maury School at 3550 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington just 10 years ago and is now marking its first decade with a show that is also worthy of celebration. Focusing on two works each by 28 of the more than 1,000 artists the center has juried into various shows during its lifetime, this anniversary exhibition also focuses attention on the fact that the AAC has become -- rather quietly, and without a nickel from the National Endowment for the Arts -- the area's most accessible and effective launching pad for new talent.

The selection couldn't have been easy for area critic David Tannous, but he's made an important point: Many of these artists, now widely known and admired here, were all but unknown when they first showed at the center -- among them "Big Al" Carter, Francisco Alvarado-Juarez, Rebecca Kamen, Andrea Way, Patrick Craig, Fred Folsom and Yuriko Yamaguchi.

But the show is a good deal more than a big brag. For each of the artists on view, Tannous has included both an old piece and a new one, giving some sense of how each artist's work has developed, along with some sense of an underlying continuity.

In the case of Way, for example, it is fascinating to see how much depth and complexity her new conceptual drawings have taken on, though it is also apparent where the new work came from. Folsom, along with many others here, also shows tremendous growth, not only in his mastery of paint, but in his ability to create haunting images.

Hilda Thorpe, Wayne Paige and James Symons, who have exhibited widely, continue to evolve, and the show happily finds Thorpe, at last, out of her white gauze phase.

But artists don't always move forward in a straight line, and that, too, is evident in an overly fussy ceramic stairwell installation by the talented Martha Jackson-Jarvis, who has done far more powerful work, including an installation commissioned by the center back in 1982 and shown here in the form of a photograph.

There is also some as yet undiscovered new talent, including Christopher Stephens, a good painter who is swiftly getting better -- a fact that has not escaped dealer Francois Clay-Tor (3314 14th St. NW), where Stephens is currently having his second solo show (through Nov. 4). Stephens, who is a househusband as well as a painter, currently lives in Front Royal, Va., and his "4PM, Front Royal," like the earlier suite of oils at Galerie Francois Clay-Tor, was painted from the front porch of his Victorian house, to which he is more or less confined as he baby-sits for his 5-month-old daughter. He seems to love both his job and his neighborhood as he almost nostalgically examines the warm, changing light as the sun plays over nearby porches and rooftops.

There is a good deal more -- overall, a first-rate tribute to a first-rate institution. Offering equal opportunities to all artist-members (any artist can join for $15) and at the same time sustaining credibility among curators, dealers and critics isn't easy, but the Arlington Arts Center seems to have done precisely that through an intelligent system of two annual juried shows, one for members only (a multimedia show) and one a painting show open to all in the Washington area, bringing in a constant infusion of new blood. The lure? Important jurors, such as museum curators Howard Fox and Jane Livingston, artist Martin Puryear and New York dealer Holly Solomon.

Many good things have happened as a result. Artist Ed Knippers (one of the 31 artists who have low-rent studios in the building) first came to the attention of Fox, then at the Hirshhorn, when he juried a show at the center. Knippers was subsequently invited to exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum, where Fox is now curator of 20th-century art.

Francisco Alvarado-Juarez was juried into his first show by Solomon, and his next major stop was in a solo at El Museo del Barrio in New York. Sculptor Frederick Wall has credited AAC board member and former Renwick director Lloyd Herman, who included him in a "Fine Crafts" exhibition, for giving him the courage to move from furniture-making into pure sculpture.

The deadline is already past for "Painting '87," which will be judged by Whitney Museum chief curator Barbara Haskell. The spring membership exhibition deadline, however, is in March, and the juror will be Ted Potter, director of SECA, the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art, in Winston-Salem, N.C. Members can also apply for one of six solo shows held each year (deadline Nov. 21); the choices are made by the center's exhibitions committee, which includes five area curators and three artists.

For the record, it should be noted that artists no longer constitute a majority of the AAC board, though they are well represented, along with museum curators, art professionals, lawyers, bankers and developers -- a mix of connections and financial support that, to be blunt, is what artists really need.

The Arlington Arts Center 10th Anniversary Exhibition will continue through October, and is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 to 5. The center is located one block from the Virginia Square Metro station.

Plaques by Eve Watts at Gallery K

Wall plaques prove to be an effective new format for ceramic sculptor Eve Watts, now showing at Gallery K. "Sand Sculpture," for example, shows a beach filled with romping sand figures, all shaped by the lone human figure on the beach -- the artist herself, hard at work peopling her own universe. Her interior universe, however, is the realm most effectively explored in this show.

There are still several ceramic table-top tableaux featuring humans with silly animal heads, cavorting on sofas and having dinner parties, etc. But there is also a new ability to convey a sense of human isolation, as in "Escape," a narrative series of five wall-hung plaques, in which a woman, bored stiff at a party, fantasizes about escaping by flying out the window and, in the company of several gulls, landing on a tiny rock island in the sea.

In "Therapy," another tableau, a woman tries on various masks as she sits across a table from a male therapist, who seems to be taking apart the house in which she finds herself trapped. "Domestic Disaster I" is one of the most affecting works: Based on a dream, it shows a woman sitting on a flowered sofa, oblivious to the male figure being washed away as the sea pours through her living room.

Watts' show, a major step from craft to sculpture, will continue through Oct. 24 at Gallery K, 2010 R St. NW. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 6.