WITH A PARADE of curators, sponsors, museum directors and flacks in attendance, "To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities" opened last month at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, venue number three on an eight-stop national itinerary. The tour of the (mostly eastern) United States has already taken the show to New York City and Andover, Mass., and early next year it will hit the road for Chicago; Atlanta; Durham, N.C.; and Nashville before grinding to a halt in Hampton Roads, Va., in the summer of 2001.

Sprawling in terms of style, media, scale, period and even the ethnicity of its artists, the show is equally far-flung in its origins. The 210 works on view were culled from the permanent collections of a half-dozen historically black colleges and universities (referred to by the show's organizers as HBCUs for simplicity's sake): Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta; Fisk University in Nashville; Hampton University in Hampton, Va.; Howard University in Washington; North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C.; and Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala. More than an exhibition, the project was accompanied from its inception by a massive effort to catalogue the six collections and identify 1,400 works whose deteriorating states were in most serious need of conservation.

"To Conserve a Legacy" includes one of Sam Gilliam's career-making painted and draped canvases along with a classic landscape by the relatively obscure mid-19th-century painter Robert S. Duncanson. There's a heroic, 13-foot-wide mural by Charles White memorializing the "Progress of the American Negro," as well as several 8-by-10 photographs of turn-of-the-century academic life at Hampton University by Frances Benjamin Johnston. There's a Renaissance-style self-portrait by Frederick C. Flemister, John Wilson's Mexican muralist-inspired portrait of a broad-faced "Negro Woman" and many, many examples of William H. Johnson's colorful, cartoony people. Elizabeth Catlett depicts the black woman in oil on canvas, carved wood and onyx and in linocut prints. European American artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz share space with such African Americans as Roy DeCarava, Jacob Lawrence and Archibald Motley Jr.

To some viewers, the exhibit may come across as something of a miracle -- not merely because something so expansive manages to hang together as well as it does (and in fact it does), but because it has managed to get off the ground at all.

"It is a hodgepodge," admits Norman E. Pendergraft, director emeritus of North Carolina Central's art museum and one of the many cooks who had a hand in stirring the savory broth. "To make it make sense was the real challenge."

So where's the handle with which one is supposed to grab this unruly exhibition?

Is it meant simply as a sort of pu-pu platter, an assortment of appetizer-sized tastings from the black collegiate museum world meant to entice museum-goers to peruse the rest of the menu? Well, yes, on one level. According to Jock Reynolds, who co-curated the show along with Richard Powell, "This is just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully, this will make you want to travel to the museums to see the greater depth of the collections." But that's only part of the story.

Is it a competition between schools where the strengths and merits of one collection can be easily weighed against another in the context of an artistic beauty pageant? Emphatically no. None of the schools here is being trotted out as superior to any other, although, between them, Howard and Hampton own half of the works on view.

Or is it as simple as the six fragmented themes into which the show has been divided? "The American Portrait Gallery," "The First Americans," "Forever Free: Emancipation Visualized," "Training the Head, the Hand and the Heart," "American Expressionism" and "Modern Lives, Modern Impulses" may be convenient portions around which to organize this meal, but the broad categories do not explain everything.

In addition to Reynolds and Pendergraft, a phalanx of others was on hand at the press opening to try and make sense of the visual smorgasbord: several directors from the contributing university galleries, representatives of the tour's corporate sponsors (AT&T and Ford Motor Company nationally and, locally, KPMG) and last but not least Carol Cooper, a former Howard University intern at the Williamstown (Mass.) Art Conservation Center's minority student training program, who worked firsthand on some of the art works conserved in preparation for this exhibition.

Inadvertently, Cooper offered the key to understanding what makes this show tick, not to mention hang together.

"Glue." Cooper spoke the word in a hushed tone of awe while speaking of what she had discovered at Williamstown. "I learned that glue can absolutely destroy a work of art."

It is the nature of material things to disintegrate, of course, but more than anything else this is about staying that disintegration. It's right there in the title phrase "To Conserve," right there inside the entrance to the first gallery, where you'll find a photograph of the late Felrath Hines, painter and former chief conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. It is to Hines that this exhibit is dedicated in recognition of the fact that conservation, more than education, more even than appreciation (and there is a lot to appreciate here), is what drives this engine.

Not to mention inspiration.

"In many ways it's a catalyst," says Pendergraft, who like Reynolds hopes that the tour will motivate more minority students to consider the field of conservation as well as to inspire the general public to pay attention to these neglected treasures.

Here's how it works. You stumble onto a piece like Nat Werner's carved-wood "Lynching" -- easily the most powerful work in the show with its corpse of a naked man being lowered gently from the hanging tree -- or White's "Progress of the American Negro." It's hard to believe that neither the work by Werner (who is white) nor by White (who is black) has been exhibited since their acquisition by Howard University decades ago.

Werner's sculpture just plain made people too uncomfortable to be exhibited regularly while White's mural sat in storage wrapped around a slatted wooden drum for 50 years. When it was unrolled recently, its surface was marred by vertical striations and major paint loss (visible in the before and after pictures that accompany the wall text).

As restored for the tour, "Progress" looks almost as good as new, while "Lynching" drives home a twofold tragedy: not just its disturbing subject matter but the fact that something so beautiful was ever hidden away.

The show and accompanying catalogue have much to teach us about the high-tech art and the eccentric ethics of conservation (e.g., when you make a fix, such as the fiberglass patch applied to the broken leg of a stag in Mary Edmonia Lewis's marble "The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter," you do not try to hide your repairs by duplicating the exact color or material of the original).

That having been said, the work of the conservator is often invisible to all but other conservators. "To Conserve a Legacy" takes these unsung saviors of art and gives them their due.

"When I see the way that some of these things are kept," laments Pendergraft, "it gives me nightmares." If this show does anything for the all-too-forgotten art of these historically black institutions, it at least holds out the fragile promise of sweeter dreams to come.

TO CONSERVE A LEGACY: AMERICAN ART FROM HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES -- Through Jan. 31 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202/639-1700. Web site: www.corcoran.org. Open 10 to 5 daily except Tuesdays; Thursdays to 9. Admission is by suggested donation of $3; $1 for seniors and students; $5 for family groups.

A companion exhibition, "To Conserve a Legacy II: American Art from the Howard University Collection" will be on view through Jan. 30 at the Howard University Art Gallery, 2455 Sixth St. NW (Metro: Shaw-Howard U.). 202/806-6111. Open Mondays through Fridays 9:30 to 5; Saturdays from noon to 5 and Sundays from 1 to 4.