Can a mild-mannered, bright-eyed art school dean from New York bring the Corcoran back to life?

Washington is about to find out.

Yesterday, by unanimous vote of the trustees, David C. Levy, 52, now chancellor of New York's New School for Social Research, was appointed president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, effective Jan. 1. He will be the eighth person to hold the post at the troubled institution in the past 20 years.

Clearly eager for the challenge, Levy awaited word of the final vote yesterday at the Dupont Circle offices of a PR firm, wearing a blue denim shirt and gray flannel suit, reflecting his unique pairing of skills as artist and administrator. He talked confidently of the museum's future, if cautiously about specific details.

"I don't think it's appropriate to come on like a ton of bricks and scare the pants off people because they either agree or don't agree until you hear what they have to say, and begin to listen to other people who are, in fact, closer to the organization and have more insight into it historically," he says. Rebuilding the Corcoran, he insists, won't be as hard as Washingtonians think.

"Look. It's a wonderful building, and one of the great collections if you're interested in American art, and there's a tremendous opportunity to look to the future at an institution that operates on that scale and with that visibility. Washington isn't exactly a small town."

That opportunity has come to him after 17 months of controversy following his predecessor's cancellation of the Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibition, which ignited a national debate on freedom of expression in the arts and threw the Corcoran into disarray.

"There's no question in my mind that the Mapplethorpe exhibition should have gone on," says Levy unequivocally, "but it's not just a question of that exhibition: It's a question of process. When your professional staff comes to a judgment based on their professional expertise, that is the judgment that stands... .

"One of the things the board and I have been talking about in depth is the reason this happened: It was a difficult piece of territory to negotiate, partly because there was no clear policy on how you dealt with these kinds of things. Our first joint action will be a policy position paper, to be voted on today, on First Amendment rights, freedom of expression and how that would be implemented. In other words, when the professional staff properly makes a decision, it will be honored."

The criteria for an exhibition policy, he said, "will be artistic and intellectual merit. We can't become involved in questions of content and politics.

"But there are larger issues, and discussions will have to take place about the direction in which the museum is going. I want to put this {Mapplethorpe} situation to rest and get beyond it."

The New School, of which he has been third in command, has taken a strong position on the NEA controversy, filing suit against the agency for having to sign an anti-obscenity pledge as a condition of receiving grant money.

"We received a $45,000 grant for a perfectly innocuous project: to design and build a new courtyard ... nothing that had anything to do with obscene in the Jesse Helms sense. But it contained this rider, which we've been calling a loyalty oath. We felt that this was a breach of the traditions on which the New School was founded. Also, NEA grants often go to organizations that are too small to do anything about it, even though their intellectual and artistic rights and freedoms had been breached, and we felt we had an obligation" to sue.

At the Corcoran, "gaps in the staff will have to be filled, and there my judgment will be brought to bear. And when those positions are filled, we can talk seriously" about the future, he says. "Art is a continuum. You don't want your exhibition policy to look like it's being run by Mary Boone," he says, referring to the trendy New York dealer of contemporary art.

One of his idols, he says, was Dorothy Miller, a Museum of Modern Art curator who made fresh judgments about artists in the '50s and '60s, "like Richard Lindner, who was in his sixties before she saw his work and put him in her exhibitions. That's what museums ought to be doing."

His role in making exhibition decisions, he says, will depend on the structure that evolves. "I'm a hands-on person, but I believe absolutely that when you have good people you have to leave them alone and let them do their thing. It's a very fine line." So far, he says, he has no specific people in mind.

He is aware that how the Corcoran treats Washington artists has long been a sensitive issue. "At all times, you have to be sympathetic to their needs: Here you have a community of artists who are working very hard to do their work. I grew up in a community of artists, and have functioned to some degree as an artist myself, a photographer, though not recently. So I know what that feels like, and I think it deserves a great deal of respect... .

"They should expect and get from the Corcoran a very fair shake. They don't have access to the National Gallery, they don't have access to any other museum, really, in Washington, of the stature of the Corcoran. They have to feel that this is a place that cares about them.

"Now, caring about them and devoting yourself entirely to their interests are two different things. And so there is some kind of middle ground that ultimately has to be struck, because this is a national museum -- this is not a local museum. In fact, the artistic community will be far better served if the Corcoran solidifies its position as a national museum, because it's a helluva lot better to be shown in a major and important national museum than to have a show at the local art center."

Before any of this can happen, Levy will have to bring in a chief curator and dean of the school. "But we also have to get a development director," he says, "because it's great to focus on programs, but you've got to pay the bills." In this area, he has an impressive track record, having brought the Parsons School of Design in New York from near bankruptcy to robust health. He was dean there for 19 years.

The Corcoran is in debt by $1.2 million, a deficit that must be paid out of its meager $10 million endowment. Levy says he hopes to raise the endowment to at least $30 million.

"It would be flying in the face of fact to say that the Corcoran isn't embattled: It's gone through a very rough time. But it's the third oldest museum in the United States, and battles, even if they take five years out of an institution's life, are a bat of the eye... .

"If the money can begin to flow again, so many of the other issues will take care of themselves. People can relax, and not make decisions that are life-threatening. In addition to being worried about adding fuel to the fire and compromising the NEA, the Corcoran was also worried about its own financial future."

As for restoring its shrunken membership base, he says, "You get the membership back by making it a place that people want to go to and support."

As to whether the gallery should continue to focus primarily on American art, Levy says, "I think there's been some ambiguity in the past. One of the things I want to do is look closely at the collection. The European collection is not comprehensive. The American collection is very comprehensive, and if you really want to understand American art in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, this is the place to go. If you could just merge the Whitney, which begins around 1920, and bring it down to Washington, we could go right on to our own time.

"The Corcoran Biennial, as I understand it, was a very, very important show, and I think largely because it's been difficult to support it financially, it's lost some of its punch... .

"From the perspective of the rest of the country, in New York, for example, the Corcoran is already an important fixture on the American art scene. Three years before Mapplethorpe, before any of this, if the Corcoran called a major New York painter who could show in any museum in the world, and said, 'We'd like to do a major retrospective of your work,' I can tell you right now that that person would have been very happy to have that done... .

"I think people in Washington don't have a sense of how others see it," he says. "In a way, what the Corcoran needs to do is come back and justify that image."

Yesterday, with his new job in hand, Levy was due to greet the trustees he hadn't yet met, and then to attend a reception for the staff and "Corcoran family" -- former board members and other supporters. Later this week, he will return to New York, where he hopes to find a tenant for his 2,500-square-foot, art-filled New York apartment on East 23rd Street. That done, he'll be looking for a small house here "where people can talk and relax." In February, he'll tour Japan as an alto sax player in an all-star American jazz band.

Why is he swapping a $90 million budget and such a formidable title for the down-and-dirty job of managing a $7.5 million budget with a big deficit? "Look, I'm 52, and I've been at Parsons and at the New School for 30 years, and either I was going to stay there forever or I was going to do something different. The Corcoran is a great American institution, and though it's had its problems over the past few years, the life of an institution transcends the temporary glitches. It just seemed to me this would be a wonderful place to make some impact on the art world which I've been part of all my life."