Money makes the art world go round. And the biggest injection of grants, often the lifeblood of arts organizations, comes from the federal government, whose largess this year totals more than $50 million.

The newest major grants were announced last week by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which gave out $46 million to 338 institutions and individuals. Awards in the District amounted to close to $1.4 million for projects ranging from Catholic University's study of Western liturgy and hagiography in the Middle Ages ($66,916) to the National Academy of Sciences' humanities exchange program with the People's Republic of China ($715,000 outright, $115,000 matching).

The National Endowment for the Arts announced awards in a number of disciplines:

Visual arts. Nationwide, 251 artists got $2.3 million in fellowship grants for the visual arts in the categories of new genres, painting and printmaking, drawing and artists' books. A lion's share of the cash awards went to New Yorkers, but there were two local winners. Robyn Johnson-Ross received $15,000, and Patrice Kehoe got $5,000.

Art service organizations. Among 25 organizations getting grants totaling $410,000, the National Council on the Aging Inc. received $30,000 to support the Center on Arts and Aging, which provides assistance for arts programs for the elderly.

Choruses. The NEA gave $450,000 to 57 choruses nationwide, including the local Washington Bach Consort and the Choral Arts Society, which each got $6,500.

Exhibits. Two area groups received funding help for current museum projects. The African American Museums Association got $69,088 for "From Field to Factory," at the National Museum of American History through spring, and the Capital Children's Museum got $241,894 for the production of five films to be part of a permanent exhibition on social changes resulting from technology.

And the Institute of Museum Services, which gave out more than $3.1 million in 248 conservation project support grants nationwide, awarded four Washington institutions more than $35,000. They are: the Textile Museum ($13,770), Decatur House ($6,265), Corcoran Gallery of Art ($12,941) and the Columbia Historical Society ($2,625). Annual general operating support awards were announced, as well, with the Folger Shakespeare Library receiving $75,000, the Octagon Museum, $22,193, and the Textile Museum, $75,000.

Notes From the Underground

There have been complaints, of course. Too dark. Oppressive. Claustrophobic. But lingering in the bucolic garden, admiring the clean, repetitive triangular or round lines throughout the structure, or standing at a point deep in the earth and seeing a pool of light flowing from a faraway skylight, you can easily see beauty and elegance in the new Smithsonian museums -- the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art -- which opened this past September.

For those who can't get there right away or can't stand the thought of descending 60 feet underground, the Smithsonian has published a soft-cover volume, "A New View From the Castle," which chronicles in words and pictures the making of the museums. Written by the museums' architect, Jean Paul Carlhian, and Edwards Park, the book covers everything from picking the flowers for the gardens to the marble for the walls.

Of course, say the authors, gaining "human acceptance of an underground environment was the toughest problem." In answer, they quote from two unlikely sources: the Mole and the Badger in "The Wind in the Willows." "Once well underground, you know exactly where you are. Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get to you," philosophizes the Mole. The Badger concurs: "There's no security, or peace and tranquillity, except underground."

The book sells for $19.95 in Smithsonian museum shops. The museums (and tranquillity) are free.

Asian Art's Debut

Also coming from the Smithsonian is a new quarterly journal on Asian art, history and culture. Asian Art is a full-color publication on topics including painting, ceramics, photography and folk traditions from ancient times to the present, and ranging geographically from the eastern Mediterranean to the Japanese archipelago. The articles will be a bit heavier than your average magazine's. Some current and upcoming topics: "The Art of Chinese Lacquer," "Ancient Near Eastern Furniture Decoration" and "The Art of Eating and Drinking in Ancient Iran." Subscriptions are $35 from Oxford University Press, 16-00 Pollitt Drive, Fair Lawn, N.J. 07410.

Air and Space's Contest Deadline

As announced in September, this is the last day to enter pictures in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Photography Contest. Anyone can submit color or black-and-white pictures to "capture the magic of the National Air and Space Museum" in three categories: form and function (the building), people (visitors) and collection (any object on display). Cash prizes of $500, $250 and $100 will be awarded on Dec. 18, and the winning shots will go on display in January at the museum. Call 357-2700 for information.