They laughed when we sat down at the piano. Years ago, they even laughed at the piano.

Washington, long regarded as a city of 97-pound cultural weaklings, took a lot of sand in the face from the sophisticated residents of New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. Even as the monumental marble of the Kennedy Center was being set in place, out-of-town aesthetes predicted it would remain an empty mausoleum, devoid of an appreciative audience. If Washington was not a cultural wasteland, it was nonetheless considered a second-rate oasis where the best show in town was Congress' annual scramble to adjourn.

The critics aren't laughing now.

Consider that Washington now hosts weeks and weeks of the best dance and ballet: the Royal Ballet, the Stuttgart, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the Paris Opera Ballet, as well as such American companies as the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey, Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor. And the Washington Ballet itself boasts one of the country's hottest young choreographers, Choo San Goh.

Consider that Washington hosts the world's finest opera companies -- La Scala, Paris, the Bolshoi and this fall, Vienna, not to mention the Houston Grand Opera -- and that not all of these companies find time to drop in on New York.

Washington theaters play to capacity and frequently to out-of-town critics. We now have not only the National and Arena (with three stages), but also the Folger, New Playwrights', Ford's and the recently revitalized Warner. Added to the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower (too often presenting warmed-over '30s sit-coms with stars to match) is the delightful Terrace Theater which housed the new Summer Opera and will invite the Folger in for a short stay this season. Joe Papp, New York's one-man theater district, is aching to get in on the excitement. He will produce a play with Roger Stevens of the Kennedy Center this winter and is dickering for some space with the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

The variety of music expands each year. The National Symphony fills its hall. Smaller chamber groups like as the Theater Chamber Players, The Twentieth Century Consort, the Contemporary Music Forum and the Folger Consort gain new fans. (The Folger will journey to New York this season.) Each year many of the world's most renowned musicians play for Washington audiences under the auspices of the National Symphony, the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Folger and the Smithsonian.

In the visual arts, many museum buffs would say we are New York's equal. We have the National Gallery and its new East Wing, the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, the Phillips, the National Collection of Fine Arts and the Freer.

Have we arrived? Is this a cultural center? Washington?

Yes, and then again, no. We have proved to the disbelieving world there is an appreciative and well-heeled audience here. As consumers of art, we have won our spurs. But a large part of the art consumed here -- and certainly that which gets the most attention -- is imported from Europe or New York. We still have a long way to go as producers and as nurturers of talent.

I really don't think Washington has changed that much in the past 10 years, not fundamentally," says Peggy Cooper, chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts. Cooper has worked for years to improve arts education for District children. She founded the Workshops for Careers in the Arts some years ago and acts as a crusading Joan of Arts for the fledgling Duke Ellington High School, one of the nation's few public high schools offering professional arts training.

"Many of the arts groups are in as much trouble today as they were before," Cooper says. "Even the long-established groups are struggling for money -- The National Symphony, Arena. And think of the people and institutions we have lost: National Ballet, D.C. Black Repertory, choregraphers Mike Malone and Lewis Johnson, producer Richmond Crinkley." She adds that at Ellington High School dancers often work without proper shoes, painters with less than perfect paints.

"And after they get out of Ellington, we have nothing to offer them here in the way of quality, continuing arts education on the professional level. I could never advise a kid not to go to New York. What's for him here?"

Oleg Tupine, now director of the respected Virginia Ballet Company and School and once ballet master of the National Ballet as well as a leading dancer with the Ballets Russes, sadly agrees:

"I think, when I get a kid who is really talented, I mean outstandingly talented, perhaps I should send him or her to New York to study. I can teach as well as anyone, but in New York, in one of the schools that feeds into a major company like American Ballet Theatre, a dancer would have a better chance to get into the company. We don't have enough chances here."

Roy Gean of the Maryland School of Ballet thinks the talented should go to New York at 16. "That's when the companies take them in," he says. "They can't finish their training here."

Zelda Fichandler of Arena Stage recommends actors get some college education, but says, "If your daughter wanted to act, she would have to go away to study."

And where do Washington's major theaters do the casting for their plays? In New York.

Determined artists have been pulling healthy rabbits out of moth-eaten hats for centuries. And Washington has already produced the Washington Color School, artists of national prominence in the late '50s; actors Helen Hayes and Shirley Maclaine; American Ballet Theatre's Kevin McKenzie. But such success stories are few.

Washingtonians can point to a few, very few, professional arts training schools. There is the Corcoran School of Art, but the Corcoran is one of a kind in the area and its reputation, though good, is not equal to New York's Pratt or the School of Visual Arts. Would-be musicians must journey at least to Baltimore to find a conservatory. And as some observers consider Peabody's reputation on the slide, a trip to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia or Juilliard in New York might be advised. The area's best known university with a major music program, the University of Maryland, would rank "around 25th in the country," according to Col. Arnald Gabriel, who directs the Air Force Symphony and Band and is a nationally known consultant in music education.

Aside from individual music teachers, some of whom are performers as well, Washington is pretty much catch-as-catch-can. Peggy Cooper is attempting to work out a student fellowship program with the National Symphony Orchestra and auditions for public high school students may be held next spring. A symphony spokesman says the emphasis would be on coaching young musicians in the orchestral repertoire. However, once graduated from high school, they would still have to find professional, college level training.

Opera singers have a better shot than instrumentalists at finding training facilities, at least in the summer. For some time now, Wolf Trap has held opera workshops for young singers -- and may set up a similar program for musical comedy. Wolf Trap also mounts its own operas, utilizing some of the younger students. The Kennedy Center, in cooperation with the Washington Opera, inaugurated the Kennedy Center Summer Opera which gave four productions in the small Terrace Theater. The performers were young, promising professional singers.

For aspiring actors there are resources of varying quality. There are a number of fine individual teachers. Washington boosters like to point to Catholic University's theater program. However, working actors and directors say the university's reputation has slipped. "They are living off their reputation of the '50s," says one source who asked to remain nameless. "Certainly Yale is far ahead of them, to a large extent because of the strength of the Yale Repertory Company." Unlike the three-year curriculum at Yale, which ultimately places students in the position of running and performing in the professional company, or that at the Juilliard School in New York, which also feeds graduates into a professional acting company, Washington area college productions are just that, leaving the student wide of the professional mark. A few students have been cast in productions at the Folger and Arena.

Some improvements have been made. Members of the Folger Theatre Group have been working with students at American University, while acting teacher Joy Zinoman has recently formed a performing company. Arena actors Halo Wines, Mark Hammer and Stanley Anderson have started a summer acting workshop in which, Wines says, "We try to share our experiences and solutions as professionals. The students, and I don't really like to think of them as students and us as teachers, are beginning professionals selected by auditions or by invitation." Unfortunately, when the Arena season starts to gear up, the workshop must grind to a halt.

One of the more interesting training grounds for actors is really centered around the playwright. At New Playwrights' Theatre, an organization which mounts a number of new scripts, acting and directing classes use the plays in progress as training material. On occasion a new script, along with its cast -- Ernest Joselovitz' Hagar's Children, for example -- has moved on to the big time (read: New York), although many of the scripts are deservedly forgotten. However, at New Playwrights', there is always the chance that Joe Papp will drop by to see what is happening, and the organization has become the model for a number of playwrights' theaters in other cities.

"I worry about the young actor," said Kennedy Center board chairman Roger Stevens. "Where can this young person get his experience? . . . So many young actors are drained off into television or movies, or maybe out of acting altogether." Stevens' current solution, which he has budgeted at $150,000 a year and for which he is now raising the money, would be a young acting company drawn from the American College Theater Festival. The group, some 10 to 15 strong, would be under contract and tour with a small repertory.

Dance training in Washington is probably as good as anywhere outside of New York. For years, both the Washington School of the Ballet and the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet have provided professional level training. More recently several suburban schools -- the Maryland School of Ballet, the Virginia Ballet Company and School and the Metropolitan Academy, for example -- have gained prominence. Graduates of Ellington High School dance with European companies. Then why do the best students from each of these schools vie for scholarships to the feeder schools of the American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet? Not necessarily because the training is intrinsically better, but because that is ultimately where the jobs are concentrated.

We have too few professional theaters to employ our young actors. Dance in Washington offers employment to fewer than 30 professionals and has only a limited season of performance. And though there are a growing number of fine chamber music groups in Washington, most musicians go to New York if they are not employed by the National Symphony or the Opera House.

Jane Livingston, associate director of the Corcoran, says that for the young artist the "support systems" are slim at best: "Compared to other cities, Washington has few alternative spaces for exhibition. And we have very little market." In fact, gallery owner Harry Lunn believes, "Washington produces more art than it collects."

"Community-based art is really just getting established in the city," in the opinion of Vernard Gray, an artist who runs the Miya Gallery and is increasingly involved in the politics of art. "We have the first city administration that has said the word 'art' more than once. So I guess we are better off than we were five years ago, and we'll be a lot better off five years from now."

Perhaps a large part of Washington's difficulty in establishing community-based art groups can be traced to the fact that Washington has always been two cities: the federal city and the local city. Inevitably, local concerns have been overshadowed by the city's prominence as the nation's capital, and the local city has in many ways remained a place without its own identity, just as it remains a place without political representation.

With the arrival of the Kennedy Center and the East Wing of the National Gallery, Washington has gained highly visible cultural institutions to balance our national political eminence, but these institutions sometimes play a role not unlike Congress when it paves over Capitol Hill parks to create more parking lots for out-of-state congressional staffers. Of the Kennedy Center, Chairman Stevens says, "This is not a Washington operation, this is a national operation. We have no amateur events. We present the best you can get."

And Stevens, along with executive director Martin Feinstein, has proved the federal city of Washington can get the best. Feinstein has lured major companies, and supporting capital of some $6 million, from all over the world. The Vienna Opera, for example, has government backing of $1 million for the diplomatic privilege of playing the Kennedy Center.

In addition to the diplomatic lure for foreign national companies, American regional and national arts organizations feel the proximity of Congress and the supporting cash of the National Endowment for the Arts as powerful magnets. Mary Ann Tighe, deputy chairman for programs at NEA, confesses that groups have the "perception" that they will benefit from performing at NEA's doorstep: "There seems to be something psychological." The congressional presence adds another lure, though Congress is not known for direct art support.

So, the Kennedy Center and the National Gallery have taken their rightful places beside the Smithsonian and the Washington Monument as important national institutions, new marching bands to thrill the tourists.

No matter how anyone resents the Kennedy Center, no one has suggested tearing it down or turning it into tennis courts. The high-powered activity of the Kennedy Center and the East Wing have benefited those Washingtonians who were interested in art and theater and have transformed the city into what J. Carter Brown of the National Gallery calls, "a marvelous place to live . . . Of the cities in this hemisphere that can provide the quality of life for the arts consumer, Washington has bubbled up as a leader. There is no question."

Furthermore, the Kennedy Center and the National Gallery have educated audiences and stimulated them to seek art beyond the marbled halls. Washington Ballet's Mary Day, who admitted to misgivings over the effect American Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker might have on her own small company, now reports, "Our subscriptions are up four times over the year before, which was up four times over the preceding year. You could run ballet every night of the year in this town."

Harry Lunn, whose gallery enjoys a reputation beyond the Potomac, remarked, "The big exhibitions can only help the galleries, unless you have nothing of quality. Shlock art will be shown up and put out of business."

There is, however, a limit to the national institutions' effect on the creation of new art. For the moment, most of the most glittering presentations of the Kennedy Center are imported; little has been nurtured from the local ground. Even the independent Washington Opera, which rents space in the Kennedy Center, presents very few productions of its own creation. Whatever grandiose impression the national media has created of the Kennedy Center, it is still a far cry from the European model of the arts center, the Paris or Moscow or Vienna. Although we have what is claimed to be a national center for the arts, we have no resident ballet or theater or opera, no Comedie Francaise and no La Scala, except on three-week loan.

"You must remember," says Martin Feinstein, "that the great international institutions took decades and centuries to build. You don't make a major repertory company in a couple of years." However, Feinstein confesses to an ambition to work in that direction in the near future. "I missed one of my goals for the Kennedy Center; I wanted a resident ballet company and a resident opera company by 1981. It is still a dream and a good way off." And Stevens believes that Washington could better support a national theater than New York: "New Yorkers go to hits; Washingtonians and Londoners go to the theater."

In addition, Feinstein and Stevens speak longingly of establishing a music, dance and theater conservatory under the umbrella of the Kennedy Center. (As Roger Stevens has just been named to the board of directors of the Peabody Conservatory, some observers are wondering if the acquisition process is under way.) Perhaps as a parallel, a good part of the East Wing will be devoted to study and discussion space for visiting arts scholars.

Zelda Fichandler who, in 1950, had the courage to open her theater in a totally theater-less town, sees a slow growth. "We are really still a city in search of an identity," she says. "I think that being visible is useful so that people know what is available. But the Kennedy Center does not mean that we have arrived culturally. In fact, it says nothing about Washington at all, or the organic growth of the city. It is a wonderful compendium of other people's culture, which is terrific. I love to go there . . . But we are not yet a mature city. We are an adolescent."

Patrick Hayes, head of the Washington Performing Arts Society, has visions of turning most of downtown into an arts center, but nonetheless makes the point that buildings do not make a cultural center. "In Paris, in the great years early in this century," Hayes says, "it wasn't the institutions that made the city great, it was the people: Hemingway, Balanchine, Diaghilev, Picasso and so forth." Washington has yet to prove that it can attract and hold a large number.

Not everyone is pessimistic. Al Nodel of the Washington Project for the Arts believes, "For the first time, Washington is becoming a decent place for an artist to live, a place where an artist can be comfortable. You don't have to wear a suit and carry a briefcase to be part of the city. I think we are on the verge of becoming a regional arts center, as New York decentralizes, and it is coming from the artists themselves."

"As the quality of life in New York becomes more and more difficult to deal with, Washington looks more and more attractive to artists. In a sense, New York's decline is our gain," in the opinion of writer Alton Miller, once of Arena Stage and now manager of the Washington Ballet. "I don't even think about the Kennedy Center when I think of artists in the city. I think of people I know working in Adams-Morgan. But it is still a small group."

So the question remains: Is Washington a cultural center? The answer also remains: yes and no. Our audience grows in size and sophistication; our local arts organizations grow as well, if more slowly and painfully than we might want. As we lack the size and tremendous wealth of New York, we are unlikely ever to supplant her.

"In Washington, we are all competing for the same small amount of money," says Peggy Cooper with some irritation. Even in Philadelphia -- yes, Philadelphia -- foundations are 11 times the size of our most generous foundation that support the arts. The Pew Memorial Trust (the Sun Oil family) weighs in with assets of $447 million while Washington's Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation has only some $42 million to start with and gives away less than $2 million a year. In Philadelphia, Sun Oil can play Sun King if it wants, though the Paris Opera has a government subsidy of $30 million a year.

Easily as important, Washington has not yet become the kind of center that can attract, train, employ, sustain and promote young artists and performing arts companies. We are still under the impression, perhaps fostered by the Kennedy Center, that culture can be a kind of add-water-and-stir proposition, a situation which a few observers blame on the local media. "If the press were as sophisticated about the arts as they are about Congress, we'd be better off," says Professor Sam Schoembaum, Shakespeare scholar and critic for London's Times Literary Supplement. "If there is a young Picasso dropping pebbles in the Potomac, no one is picking up his ripples."

Perhaps the fact that Washington is not Paris or London is both irrelevant and impossible. Years ago, it was an adage than an artichoke has to pass through the Paris central market on its way to a destination five miles from its soil of origin, but the American experience has always been more decentralized. Today we have major theaters in Minnesota and Texas, ballet in Atlanta and Salt Lake City, symphony orchestras all over. This decentralization, fostered by the National Endowment for the Arts in recent years, is credited with encouraging many more young playwrights, for example, than would have been possible under the New York hit-or-miss theater economy. Wonderful as the Comedie Francaise sometimes is at presenting the 17th century in verse, that institution had little to do with the development of an Ionesco. The Bald Soprano and The Lesson played for years and years in a tiny theater on the Left Bank -- not on the stage of Moliere.

Washington, it seems clear, is still in a developing state. But can we be, possibly way in the future, one of the great cultural capitals of the world? Who knows, because no one knows just how these things come about.

"No one knows how the great explosions happen. No one knows quite what happened in fifth-century [B.C.] Greece," says Carter Brown, whose profession leads him to take the long view. "Who knows what happened in Florence? I used to talk to Bernard Berenson about this and he has this theory that it was like crops: Some years were good and some were not." CAPTION: Cover photo, Performing Arts Season, by John Burwell; Picture 1, no caption, AP; Picture 2, no caption, by Bill Snead; Picture 3, Young dancers at the Washington School of the Ballet may end up vying for scolarships at feeder New York schools to get jobs with major ballet companies, photo by Bill Snead; Picture 4, Roger Stevens: The Kennedy Center "is not a Washington operation, [it's] a national operation.", by Bill Snead. Photo by Bill Snead.