David Lloyd Kreeger resigned from the board of the Corcoran Gallery of Art this week, with apprehensions about the future of the institution in which he played a key role for a quarter of a century.

Kreeger, who spent 16 years as president or chairman of the Corcoran board, said he has many points of pride in the Corcoran but fears that the institution may lose its rudder in the post-Mapplethorpe era. "It's painful because I love the Corcoran and I've been connected with it for 25 years," he said.

Board Chairman Elinor Farquhar said Kreeger's decision was influenced by health problems. But Kreeger said, "My resignation is due to the fact that I'm 81 years old and I think other people should be given an opportunity to lead the Corcoran."

The Corcoran's cancellation of an exhibit of controversial photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe last year set off a fierce national debate over freedom of expression and federal funding of the arts and precipitated a crisis at the gallery as well. At a meeting Monday, the Corcoran board backed a policy statement supporting funding of the National Endowment for the Arts without restrictions on the type of art it may support.

"The Corcoran has suffered grievous damage to its reputation and its standing, and the Corcoran must now restore its credibility in the field of contemporary art," Kreeger said. "The worst thing {the board} could do is to pull the blanket over its head and say, 'We are going to withdraw from the field of contemporary art... . We are now going to nurse our {collection} and play it safe.' ... We must be in the forefront."

Farquhar said Kreeger's fears are groundless. "The Corcoran is certainly not backing away from contemporary art," she said. While acknowledging the difficulties of the past year, she said, "I really feel that we have turned the corner... . We're looking to a good and strong future."

Kreeger also said the Corcoran has "extremely pressing physical problems," including "a dire need of a new roof" and other work that will require "a massive infusion of funds for renovation and construction." The gallery needs $15 million to $25 million to do "a really thorough job" of repair and expansion, he said.

Following the recommendations of a special committee established to address the Corcoran's plight, the board last January approved a plan to abolish lifetime appointments and to rotate members off. (Those changes were formally approved Monday.) Kreeger's resignation, while part of that plan, was not expected until Dec. 31. But Kreeger said he intended to resign at the end of the fiscal year, rather than the calendar year.

Kreeger joined the board in the early 1970s when it was made up of nine members from the moneyed elite. He was the board's first Jewish member and made efforts to expand the group and make it more diverse. But the board ultimately grew to more than 60 members and became unwieldy.

The gallery has undergone drastic changes in the past year. The board has been cut from 53 to 35 members and aims to trim to 27. Key staff positions are vacant, including the posts of director, associate director and chief curator, dean of the art school and curator of collections. After Monday's meeting, the board announced that Brigitte Savage, director of membership, will leave after nine years to become director of development at the Older Women's League in Washington.

"We have a completely different board and a completely different executive staff. It remains to be seen in what direction we shall be led. I fervently hope and pray that we will not deviate from the path that led to such great success," Kreeger said.

Farquhar said yesterday that the board has a list of possible directors and hopes to make an appointment by this fall. The new director will fill the other positions, she said.

Kreeger said the Mapplethorpe debacle contained "a lesson to be learned by the entire museum community, by the whole cultural community of the United States, and I hope it will be deeply pondered." Any attempt to hamper artistic expression "has damaging consequences," he said. Instead, those who might be offended by certain types of expression should be warned, he said, just as movie audiences are warned by X ratings.

"I think there should be a way to shield those who are sensitive to that sort of {art}," he said. Any attempt to screen the content of art -- even federally funded art -- "will do more damage than an occasional infringement," he added.

During his tenure at the Corcoran, Kreeger said, the gallery has become "one of the leading museums in the country, not only because of its remarkable collection of American art of the 19th and early 20th centuries but also because it has been such a strong force in the presentation of contemporary art."

The gallery "has brought new art from all over the country to Washington and has been a weather vane of new movements," he continued, and area shows have displayed "the remarkable talent that exists right in the capital city." While local artists complained that the Corcoran has not represented their work adequately in recent years, Kreeger said that "the Corcoran has probably been more active in the presentation of local artists than any other museum in the country."

Kreeger said the Corcoran's former chief curator, Jane Livingston, who resigned last year, helped to elevate photography to an accepted artistic medium. And he said the gallery school, which became an accredited four-year institution during his tenure, is "one of the glories of the Corcoran."

Staff writer Jo Ann Lewis contributed to this report.