The District of Columbia Arts Center, the erratic but ambitious alternative arts space in Adams-Morgan, starts a new era today under the tutelage of Andrew Mellen, a well-traveled actor-writer who was named director of the center last month. He replaces acting director Margaret Schnipper, who resigned in September after 14 months on the job.

"Not to sound like Shirley MacLaine, but I see {my job} as a process," says Mellen, who signed a one-year contract but has given the DCAC board of directors a "three-year verbal commitment." "I hope to create a space that is equal access to everyone for showcasing the finest, most dynamic work of artists from the greater metropolitan area."

Mellen comes to Washington by way of Detroit (where he was born), Marquette, Mich. (where he went to college), Milwaukee and Chicago (where he acted in local theater), and most recently, New York (where he formed the Shuttle Theatre Company).

The move to Washington will present its challenges, according to Mellen, but he feels "there's a hunger here for {alternative arts}. Along with that kind of shroud of conservatism is a really buoyant spirit," he says. "I feel like I'm coming down to create a space where the arts can come together ... a space that encourages artists to experiment, to take risks, to grow, to develop, without some kind of price tag hanging over their head."

That's basically been DCAC's aim since it opened in June 1989, but reaching for the top isn't easy when there are not a lot of folks around to hold the ladder. Schnipper, who now produces performance art shows under the banner of Sprocket Productions, said she left the center because she was "frustrated by the lack of a support staff." She described 10-hour days and seven-day workweeks.

But Mellen, 30, who describes himself as "tenacious and aggressive," hopes things will change -- he plans to hire a full-time assistant in addition to a few college interns. "I am going to be very busy, but I also started a theater company out of the dust in New York," he says. "I've never been frightened by hard work or long hours."

When the DCAC opened on June 16, 1989, many in the arts community hoped it would be a beacon for fringe, avant-garde and alternative performances and exhibits, but the space has never quite seemed to take a foothold.

"I think we're at a sort of do-or-die moment," says board member George Hemphill. "We're at the precipice. I think the board realizes that if we want to see this thing be successful, we need to be administratively a little more professional."

"To a certain extent, the programming has been particularly ambitious for an organization so new," says Hemphill. "But there's kind of a loose-gun quality to it, and it hasn't necessarily been articulated to the public as well as it should."

Problems with that articulation were evident as recently as Friday when the answering machine at the center announced that the performing space within the building was closed for a month "due to unusual circumstances," although the gallery space remained open. Yesterday, the message was changed and did not mention the shutdown. Mellen explains the reason for closing: "We did not have the proper permit for the back space to meet the appropriate number of people who were attending events." In other words, locals got annoyed by the noise and crowds in Dance Alley behind the center on 18th Street NW during and after rock music events. Mellen says the space will reopen sometime this month but will no longer include late-night rock music.

That's just one of the changes Mellen foresees. He plans "a more consistent approach to programming. I want to curate shows that have specific themes, that reflect current events, or address longer-range and more abstract themes. As for performance, people will be offered longer runs. It won't be a one-night event so there will be longer visibility afforded to each individual performer."

As for his own acting career, he plans to put it on hold for now, although he'll perform a solo show, titled "My Life as Kim Novak," Thursday at d.c. space. It's an autobiographical account about "growing up in Detroit in the '60s, living through the riots, growing in my particular family, coming to terms with my sexual orientation, overcoming a chemical dependency, moving forward as a student who's interested in learning how to live an integrated, healthy existence."