Question: Which Washington organization offers access this fall to an evening with jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson, a nine-day symposium on computer graphics and the world premiere of the latest Kevin Costner film?

Answer: The Smithsonian Resident Associate Program (RAP).

While the rest of the Smithsonian Institution anxiously awaits word of how the federal budget crisis will restrict its activities, RAP members and the organization's 60 staffers have reason to rejoice. For one thing, RAP is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, and for another, the zero-base budget program may be in better shape than anything else on the Mall.

The reason: As far as Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams is concerned, even if the institution has to endure one- or two-day-a-week closings, the RAP offerings, which are supported primarily by the fees the public pays for them, will go on.

"You can take it for granted that the RAP program won't be disrupted," says Adams, stopping just short of a guarantee. "It is absolutely in a better situation than other parts of the institution. It pays its own freight, and it has a vast constituency out there that makes its plans in advance. Our assumption is that like the {Smithsonian} magazine, it has to go forward."

The Resident Associate Program was started in 1965 by then Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley to encourage community participation and support for the institution -- and at the same time make some money through membership fees. And RAP, through its seminars, lectures and public events, would enable the Smithsonian to fulfill its mandate of "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

"Museum professionals are often rather stifled, and don't have much contact with the general public," Ripley said last week. "This creates all sorts of minor problems -- feeling slightly out of it, unwanted, depressed. Anything that can be done to bring these two groups together is very important. I wanted to open all the doors."

Over time, RAP has become an integral part of the intellectual life of its members. Its multifaceted mandate has expanded to include activities such as a museum-based adult education program superior to just about any other in the country; high-quality, low-cost lectures, symposiums and films; programs targeted at minorities and singles, senior citizens and studio artists, kite fliers and kids; and first-rate performing arts programs.

"One of the things I was conscious of when I first came here was that while the city is full of intellectual, able people, it lacks an intellectual center," says Adams. "RAP brings together a considerable number of people interested in continuing education, and makes them conscious that they are numerous, varied and interested in the same thing."

Since 1972, RAP has been run by Janet Solinger, a glamorous, demanding woman of a certain age (she isn't telling, but she began working in the late 1950s after she was widowed at 35) with an entrepreneurial flair.

Over the years RAP has become identified with Solinger. The numbers alone are a testament to her stewardship: From an organization with a quarter-million-dollar budget and 7,500 members when she came, it has grown to one with a $6 million budget and 56,000 members. Observes one insider, "She has the taste of the people RAP is trying to program for. She is the Smithsonian associate rendered supreme."

Others point to her drive and spirit -- and her ability to keep RAP in the public eye. "She has been the heroic difference between an organization that has done interesting things and one that has become a force in Washington," says Marc Pachter, a deputy assistant secretary of the Smithsonian who is one of her supervisors.

Under Solinger's leadership RAP burrows along with 60 paid staffers and 420 volunteers. (Its headquarters and most of its classes are three floors below ground level in the three-year-old S. Dillon Ripley Center between the Smithsonian Castle and the Freer Gallery.) Last year it sold 115,000 tickets to its approximately 3,000 different programs.

As RAP meets its quarter-century mark, Solinger and company don't speak of radical change. Instead, RAP, aided by a new computer system, is rying to sharpen its focus and to expand and strengthen its base by seeking out new support. (Last year's course enrollments were the highest ever, but for fewer courses.)

"Our work is to complement and enhance the research and exhibitions of the museums -- and to go beyond what the museums do," says Edmund Worthy, RAP's associate director for programming. Adds Michael Cassidy, the associate director for administration, "We're tuning our methodology to better find out what people are looking for when they come to the Smithsonian. We want to serve as many people as our facilities can handle."

However, reaching new communities, tightening the belt and staying in the black is a considerable challenge. Like the other business activities of the Smithsonian -- the magazine, the shops, the mail-order operation -- RAP must support itself, creating enough income for all its costs: salaries, rent for office space ($252,000 a year), programs, guards, printing, equipment, telephones.

To that end, its program officers strive to balance tried-and-true attractions -- particular favorites are marbling and graining classes, film premieres and celebrity lectures -- with its more experimental activities. They also work hard persuading lecturers and performers to accept smaller than usual stipends. RAP sometimes even schedules those appearances when the principals are in town on somebody else's dollar. The carrot is the prestige of appearing at the Smithsonian. It is a strategy that works much of the time.

Exceptions are made for some of the more specialized programs, such as Discovery Theater, Discover Graphics and the Performing Arts program, all of which RAP inherited rather than initiated. These three and the start-up of the new African American program receive extra money from the Smithsonian, allotments that added up to about $300,000 last year -- 5 percent of RAP's total budget.

RAP clearly thinks the expenditure is worth it. Discover Graphics, for example, offers eligible high school students the opportunity to learn etching and produce their work on the Smithsonian's high-quality presses. Rachel Cardella, a senior at Wheaton College who went through the program and is taking a term off to work as a lab technician at the Corcoran School of Art, is planning a career in studio arts. She believes that the Discover Graphics experience gave her life a new focus. "I had thought maybe I'd go into psychology, but I'd never thought about going into art. It helped me see what art was all about."

Even so, the pay-your-own-way message remains loud and clear. Says Marcus Overton, the director of the performing arts program, "Our choice of events has to be carefully considered to make sure our ticket revenue will balance against cost. As performing arts programs go, this one stands almost alone in the country in having to cover at least its direct costs."

In the past four years, RAP has seen particular growth in its adult education program, the Campus on the Mall, which this year attracted about 13,000 people. Any continuing education program reflects the tastes of its times, and these days the RAP catalogue lists subjects as diverse as modern physics, Navajo art and culture, ancient Egypt and Lyndon Johnson. It also offers five non-degree programs (art history, Asian civilization, international affairs, music connoisseurship and Western civilization) that lead to a special certificate.

"Washington has a whole population so focused on their career development that they are culturally illiterate," says Director Anna Caraveli. "But these are serious people serious about learning for the sake of learning. This is their chance to fill in the gaps."

Recent years have also seen the growth of programs that aim to reach audiences beyond RAP's core membership, which tends to be college-educated and upper-middle-class. Solinger is quick to point out that under her leadership outreach has always been a goal. But it is RAP's mandate to continue to target new audiences -- prison populations and "golden age communities" are two of her latest goals -- as well as ways of reaching them.

The biggest push has been given to African American programs, which are managed by Jacqueline Hicks Grazette, who joined the Smithsonian 2 1/2 years ago. "It wasn't that the Smithsonian didn't have them before then," says Hicks, "but they weren't planned in any sustained way, or specifically done to attract an African American audience."

Now they are. And they are not only listed in the newsletter sent to all Smithsonian associates but also in a separate brochure that Hicks sends out to a specially developed mailing list of predominantly African Americans.

Says Hicks, who estimates that 10,000 people attended RAP's African American events last year, "The Smithsonian is a major catalyst in society -- not just a museum. When it does something, it has a ripple-down effect. But this place does not address African American culture. It has tremendous resources and influences; I wanted to use that in some way to address people I come from."

These days, the idea of outreach also applies to finding potential funders or partners for some of RAP's presentations. The Campus on the Mall, for example, has produced courses with embassies, individual museums and private business organizations. The computer graphics symposium that launched the 25th anniversary celebration was sponsored by a host of hardware, software and graphics companies.

But it is the public that is still the central focus. Brenda Lane, a civilian illustrator for the Army in Panama, paid her own way to Washington to attend the symposium. "It's isolated down there," she explained. "I don't get enough contact with the field, but the Smithsonian connoted something serious and quality and objective." Don Okazaki, a teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School, received a Fairfax County public school sabbatical to attend. "It was really comprehensive," he said. "It hit important areas I can pass along to my students."

Still, RAP is not without its problems: Membership has shrunk from a high of 60,634 two years ago but now seems to be climbing back. Sufficient parking on or near the Mall is a perennial concern as is limited office, class and lecture space, which restricts RAP's ability to satisfy its members. (An Oct. 1 lecture by Robert Redford, "Saving the Planet," has a waiting list of 1,000.)

And of course RAP contends there is never enough staff or money. As it is now, most of the course and class monitors are volunteers, as are 77 office workers. One of Solinger's dreams to ease some of the organization's financial crunch in the future is to refrain from returning all of RAP's excess earnings to the Smithsonian ($123,000 last year), holding back perhaps $50,000 to start a RAP endowment -- a dream that may well have to wait for a year when the parent institution doesn't feel so pinched.

If she has to, Solinger can wait. Because, even though she is -- as she puts it when forced to consider the issue -- "not a young woman," she is planning to stick around. Will she ever retire? "Everyone thinks of that," she says. "But I certainly haven't given any thought to when. I have at least as much energy as anyone on my staff -- probably more."

Says Adams, who at an anniversary party last night presented Solinger with a Smithsonian gold medal for exceptional service: "There is an element of entrepreneurship about what Janet does that you don't find in an academic bureaucracy. I hope that problem will wait for my successor."