After a nationwide search, the Corcoran Gallery of Art has found its next chief curator--right in its own back yard.

She is Jacquelyn Days Serwer, 54, curator of contemporary art at the National Museum of American Art here. Widely respected for her thoughtful, quietly persuasive shows on contemporary American art and artists, she has been a curator at NMAA since 1985. The announcement will be made today.

Serwer replaces Jack Cowart, who left the Corcoran in late July to become director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in New York. She will assume her new post at the end of December.

According to Corcoran Director David Levy, Serwer applied for the job only after she was asked to do so by a Corcoran official. "We had breakfast, and it was a perfect fit," Levy said.

"I wasn't looking to leave NMAA--not at all," Serwer said yesterday. "I was planning to spend the rest of my professional life right where I was. This just came out of nowhere.

"But the idea of being able to shape the Corcoran, with all the things that are coming up--including the new building--was too good to pass up. It's probably the only job in Washington that could have lured me away."

From the sound of it, she'll be badly missed. "I've been in denial," said NMAA Director Elizabeth Broun. "Working with Jackie is every director's dream: She is a terrific advocate for the artists, has a great curatorial eye, and is a wonderful team player and close friend. We're still absorbing the shock."

Until January, Serwer was chief curator at NMAA, a two-year, rotating position there. "If I'm truthful with myself," she allowed, "I missed being at the center of the action to some extent. I liked it."

There will be plenty of action at the Corcoran over the next few years, as the museum is finally forced to clarify its goals and purposes in order to design and allocate spaces in the new building. That should also help sharpen its exhibition program, which to date has been noticeably scattershot and unfocused.

Serwer seems aware of this. "I think everybody is in the mode to plan right now as they go into this major project," she said. "It would be a shame if the new building doesn't reflect the goals of the institution. But first the Corcoran has to crystallize its goals. Then they can design an exhibition program that supports, furthers and validates that."

Her taste in contemporary art appears to be wide-ranging. At NMAA, she organized a broad spectrum of shows and installations featuring Gene Davis, Miriam Schapiro, Jasper Johns, Hung Liu, Mark Tansey, David Bates, Pepon Osorio, David Hockney, David Beck, Nam June Paik, Paul Cadmus and Robert Cottingham. She also organized "American Kaleidoscope: Themes and Perspectives in Recent Art," an exhibition focusing on the shared concerns of 14 contemporary artists of various ethnic backgrounds.

Serwer was born in Florida, grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and was trained as an art historian at Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Chicago (with former NMAA director Joshua Taylor) and City University of New York, where she received her doctorate in American art.

In 1968 she married her childhood sweetheart, Foreign Service officer Daniel Serwer, maintaining her studies and career as their family moved from Geneva to Rome to Brasilia and back to Rome, their last foreign posting.

She began her curatorial career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art under Henry Geldzahler and taught art history at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva and at Brooklyn College.

In between, she also wrote a prize-winning cookbook, "Pasta and Rice Italian Style" (authored with Efrem Calingaert).

Daniel Serwer now directs the Balkans program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The couple have two sons, one a junior in the theater program at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the other an architecture graduate of Princeton University.

CAPTION: Jacquelyn Days Serwer plans to help set and meet the Corcoran's goals.