Just a year after it canceled a Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibition and touched off a national debate over the future of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corcoran Gallery of Art is making a clumsy attempt to kiss and make up with the NEA.

It has mounted what it calls "a very special exhibition saluting the National Endowment for the Arts for twenty years of vital support to the Gallery."

A pathetic little bleat of a show, it consists of nine small drawings and watercolors that recently underwent conservation treatment paid for by an NEA grant. They hang in the tiny former lounge for Corcoran members, which has not previously been used as exhibition space.

"We never used it before because we've never had a show this small before," explained a gallery spokesman.

This somewhat belated outbreak of gratitude comes after the first anniversary, June 12, of the Corcoran's controversial cancellation. At that time, rather than manning the barricades on behalf of artistic freedom, the Corcoran's director and board opened the floodgates to a national controversy on art censorship that has come close to putting both the NEA and the Corcoran out of business.

Along with the works by 19th- and 20th-century Americans, the roomlet also boasts four chairs and a glass table laden with Corcoran membership brochures and promotional material. Among them, two relevant handouts: one listing a few of the more than $1.6 million in NEA grants given to the Corcoran during the past five years (which have brought more than $7 million in private matching funds); the other a straight-faced item from the Corcoran's own newsletter pointing out that "the NEA is under extreme pressures, pressures that threaten artistic freedom of expression." It exhorts citizens to rise up and write their congressmen in support of NEA reauthorization "without censorship."

Asked what the NEA thought of the Corcoran's mounting such a "salute," a spokeswoman expressed only surprise.

"They did?" she asked incredulously.

"We appreciate the positive effort," she added hastily.

As for the show, if you can call it that, it does include two interesting little pencil drawings by Thomas Moran and one by William Brenton Boggs, a lovely watercolor of a magnolia branch by George Biddle and a semiabstraction titled "Two Heads" by Alfred H. Maurer -- all well worth conserving. Very minor works by Whistler, Gari Melchers, Arthur B. Davies and William Trost Richards are also included.

Linda Simmons, associate curator of collections -- who was thrilled with the rare opportunity to show even such a small number of the 8,000 works on paper the Corcoran owns -- said that without this $25,000 restoration grant from the NEA, none of the 32 works treated could have been shown because in most cases "the paint was so loose, it would have fallen off."

She also said the grant was just one of several from the NEA that have helped bring the care of the Corcoran's collection of works on paper "into the 20th century."

It was NEA money, she said, that paid to carve out the spacious storage area with shelves and acid-free boxes that now hold the collection. And it was an NEA grant that paid for the publication of the first-ever catalogue of the collection, titled "American Drawings, Watercolors, Pastels and Collages in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art."

Neither the Corcoran's development office nor the press office was able to come up with the amounts of those grants.

NEA Public Affairs Officer Jack Lichtenstein was grateful in any case.

"I haven't seen the exhibit," he said, "but I think any time a distinguished institution wants to showcase some of the good work that the NEA has supported, we're very pleased."

Another staff member, who requested anonymity, pointed out the ultimate irony in the situation: Although the Corcoran has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the NEA, no NEA money was involved in its planned showing of the Mapplethorpe exhibition.

Yet in the guise of protecting the NEA and the Corcoran, the staffer said, former Corcoran director Christina Orr-Cahall managed to make every congressman in Washington aware that a $30,000 NEA grant had been given to the show's organizers, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The connection {between the NEA and the Mapplethorpe show} might never have been made if she hadn't brought it up."