I THINK THERE ARE VISIONARY POSSIBILITIES here," says Jack Cowart, 40, the National Gallery of Art's new curator of 20th century art. "But then I'm young, and I'm supposed to think big thoughts."

He is not alone. With the opening of the Hirshhorn Museum and the creation of the National Gallery's department of 20th century art a decade ago, Washington art lovers began dreaming of a museum scene here that would be a feisty forum for contemporary art as well as a monument to the past.

Now that dream seems suddenly within reach, as major paintings by Mark Rothko, Frank Stella and even trendy newcomers like Louisa Chase have started pouring into Washington museums, and artists like Rausch Lichtenstein are turning up in person on the National Gallery stage. The reason: a new generation of museum direcors and curators, each able and eager to stake out the unexplored territory of contemporary art.

The five major players are Michael Botwinick and Ned Rifkin at the Corcoran, James Demetrion at the Hirshhorn, Charles Eldredge at the National Museum of American Art and Jack Cowart at the National Gallery -- an impressive new team, which also properly includes Jock Reynolds, director of the Washington Project for the Arts, and the handful of other curators of contemporary art already at work in various museums. They are ambitious people with ambitious ideas, all determined to bring Washington up to date in the art of this century and today -- a realm in which it has always fallen short.

In only a decade this city has emerged as one of the great museum capitals of the world. Washington now seems poised on the brink of becoming a museum capital for contemporary art as well. JAMES DEMETRION, Hirshorn Museum

"THE FACT THAT I DIDN'T KNOW Mr. Hirshhorn has some advantages," says James Demetrion, 53, the new director of the Hirshhorn Museum, who met the museum's founder only once. "I can be more objective about the 13,000 objects he collected."

Since arriving last November, Demetrion has moved slowly. "I infiltrate," he says. But his first priority is clear: to build up the Hirshhorn's contemporary art collection and fill in holes. Twenty-one percent of the Hirshhorn's holdings are by only 14 artists, according to Demetrion. "A museum that begins with a private collection and doesn't continue to collect becomes a tombstone," he says.

Although the Hirshhorn was created as a museum of contemporary as well as classic Modern art, Demetrion notes that "the last 15 or 20 years are not at all well-represented in our collections. Not a single artist in the 'Content' show is significantly represented there (in the museum). We need to move more solidly into that area."

A specialist in early 20th-century German and Austrian Expressionism, Demetrion also points to "other glaring voids" he hopes to fill in: "There is no great Pollock in the collection, no great Picasso painting, no painting at all by Matisse. And the whole area of Pop Art is underrepresented, with no Oldenburg soft sculpture, no early Lichtenstein. There's a major Jasper Johns sculpture in the collection, and one painting, but I'd rather have the painting in Des Moines."

The problem, he says, is an acquisitions budget that is half what he had to spend at the Des Moines Art Center, which he directed from 1969 until coming to the Hirshhorn. In Des Moines Demetrion acquired major works by Johns, Bacon, Beuys and younger artists like Jackie Ferrara. "I'm surprised that people don't know how limited we are in what we can buy," says Demetrion. "We must get potential donors to recognize the need."

He will have more money to spend when the Hirshhorn will is settled, though he isn't counting heavily on it. "I think there may be less money there than people thought," he says of Hirshhorn's estimated $5 million bequest to the museum. "What's there appears to be tied up in real estate, or in mineral rights to remote areas in Canada, which are not likely to pay off in my lifetime." He does have one freedom unusual for a museum director: according to Hirshhorn's generous agreement with the Smithsonian, anything in the collection may be sold or traded for other works of art. "The problem is that deaccessioning is such a bugaboo," says Demetrion. "It has to be done with great caution." But it undoubtedly will be done.

As for exhibitions, Demetrion was especially pleased with the Hirshhorn's 10th anniversary "Content" show (organized before he arrived last November), and its attempt to make sense of the past, post-Modern decade. He has also reinstituted the biennial "Directions" shows, offering contemporary curators Howard Fox and Phyllis Rosenzweig the opportunity to continue to examine current trends. "ould be doing, and if we do look back, it should be at things that others haven't done," he says. A retrospective by quirky sculptor Robert Arneson is in the works.

"There are lots of places dancing on the same turf," says Demetrion, pointing to the heavy contemporary collecting and exhibition activity in other Washington museums, notably the National Gallery. "The question is, do we overlap? Or do we try to carve out our own identity?"

Obviously choosing the latter, he says, "I'd like the Hirshhorn to be in the forefront of what's going on now. It's important to look back, and I won't ignore the past. But our main thrust has to be with now andtomorrow." MICHAEL BOTWINICK< Corcoran Gallery of Art

"I'LL PUT WASHINGTON AGAINST NEW YORK any time, so far as the institutional contemporary art establishment is concerned," says Michael Botwinick, the street-smart, fast-talking former director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. "You want to compare the contemporary art program of the Corcoran with the Whitney? I'll be happy to. Within the year, we've had 'New Art from Germany,' Robert Motherwell, Dan Flavin, Ad Reinhardt and the Biennial, and we've got Leon Golub and Jonathan Borofsky coming up. Go ahead, compare them.

"If people want to worry about culture in this town, they should get on the backs of the theater people, the ballet people or the opera people," says the Corcoran's director. "That's where we don't stack up, perhaps. But the museum people, for better or worse, have delivered. Fifteen years ago Washington rose up and said, 'Give us a great museum community like the one in New York,' and they got it -- even though they're only the size of San Jose.

"But museums are -- and always will be -- two years behind the cutting edge because they're institutions. And if there's a sense here of not being current, it's not because of the museums, but because Washington lacks real echoes to those institutions: people who are quicker and more daring than we are, alternative spaces like PS 1 in New York, or the New York art galleries, a marketplace of ideas that's unique in the world and irreplaceable. Washington is not, after all, a commercial center like New York, and never will be. That's what's missing here. But the museums? They've delivered."

With an eye to delivering more, and closing the time gap between new ideas and their first appearance in Washington, both Botwinick and the Corcoran's associate director, Jane Livingston, last year recruited Ned Rifkin to be curator of contemporary art, a post that, incredibly, did not previously exist. "We wanted a young person whose eyes were trained in the decade after ours," says Botwinick, "and I recruited him as if I were a Georgetown basketball coach and he were a seven-foot center. He came because he shared our sense of what the future here could be.

"As I see it, I'm here to achieve three things for the Corcoran: first, fiscal stability through a major endowment drive, soon to be launched; physical growth for both the museum and the Corcoran School, possibly by expanding into the parking lot; and program growth. If we had a little money and a little more space, we could knock your socks off."

Meanwhile, Botwinick takes pride in having won at least a temporary truce with Washington's local art community by conducting peaceful monthly discussions with rotating groups of artists. They, as a result, will be organizing the forthcoming Area Show, now renamed the Washington Show.

"I view Washington's contemporary art world as being on the threshold of transition," says Botwinick. And to help ease the Corcoran's transition from being the poorest museum in town to being the best, he's willing to try anything -- including sending in an entry to the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. "Just imagine if the Corcoran won $10 million!" he muses. CHARLES ELDREDGE National Museum of Armerican Art

"MY DREAM IS TO HAVE Washington cab drivers know where we are," says Charles Eldredge, 40, who has been delivered to just about every museum in town after asking for the National Museum of American Art.

As controversial director of the museum with the biggest identity crisis in "town, Eldredge has worked in a frenzy to change that since he arrived from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas two years ago. He has reorganized the staff, reinstalled the collections and redecorated the galleries in period white, blue and raspberry.

In the process, he has raised eyebrows -- and tempers -- by closing down the only children's art gallery in town, and abolishing the Discover Graphics program (and staff) that had introduced hundreds of area teachers and high school students to the graphic arts. "It had to be done," he insists. "We needed the space. I am glad the program survives and prospers under the more appropriate sponsorship of the Smithsonian Associates. The last 10 years have been marked by a proliferation of too many activities -- outreach programs, blockbusters, video, etc. I'm not disparaging all that. If money were no object, we could do it all. But I'm conservative in that respect."

He also created the new position of chief curator for his able young assistant from Kansas, Elizabeth Broun, a move interpreted by some as a limiting of the input -- and output -- of existing curatorial staff.

Eldredge's chief priority, he says, is to put NMAA's limited spaces to new and better use. "The most important thing this museum does is direct itself to the collections, some 32,000 objects, and the largest collection of American art on the planet. I'd say it's the finest anywhere. Others have singular masterpieces, but we're not short on treasures by Ryder, Homer, Stuart Davis and the American Impressionists." His dream shopping list: a Copley portrait, the lack of which he says "is an embarrassment"; a Martin Johnson Heade; a great Pollock; a major Benton.

"Now we can pay attention to improving the collections and programs," says Eldredge, adding: "Our mandate is to look at American art from the beginning to the end."

As for current art, he says "We are mindful that there is a sister institution within the Smithsonian dedicated to Modern art -- the Hirshhorn. Because they are there, we don't feel so pressed." But he points to recent shows on Robert Indiana, Aaron Siskind, Werner Drewes and the forthcoming James Rosenquist retrospective, scheduled for 1986, as evidence of a persistent interest in contemporary art. Curator Harry Rand, whose book on Arshile Gorky was one of the best art biographies of the decade, is organizing an exhibition of the works given to the museum in memory of art dealer Martha Jackson by her son in 1981.

Eldredge gained something of a reputation in Kansas for his exhibitions of recent art, including installations by Robert Irwin and Patrick Ireland and a new look at Pop Art. "I hope to provide a space here as well, so the museum can be responsive to new developments and breakthroughs," he says.

Eldredge's wife, Jane, a lawyer, was a Kansas state senator during his first six months at the NMAA. While she commuted between Washington and Topeka, he had primary responsibility for the care of their two children. Ultimately she quit her legislative post and moved here full time.

"Bicoastal may be trendy," says Eldredge, "but semicoastal is for the birds. My wife gave up a lot. In one week she resigned from the state senate, closed her law practice in Kansas and sold the house."

Apart from the reorganization of the museum, Eldredge has made several major acquisitions for the collection and worked doggedly at hustling funds its public programs and exhibitions. "It's hard to raise money from someone who's never heard of you," he says. NED RIFKIN, Corcoran Gallery of Art

NED RIFKIN, 35, the Corcoran Gallery's new curator of contemporary art, is the biggest surprise. Preceded by a reputation as a seer and apostle of the new, this former curator and assistant director of New York's hip New Museum of Contemporary Art arrives for lunch at Maison Blanche in a banker's- cut, blue pin-stripe suit that leaves him indistinguishable from the surrounding lawyers and lobbyists.

When you can't tell the avant-garde from the lobbyists, you know times have changed.

There's the boyish grin, the mop of straight black hair authoritatively streaked with silver, the basketball player's physique, the vegetarian diet (no dessert). Rifkin even admits to living in Bethesda with his wife and two children and carries their photo in his wallet. For a connoisseur of the cutting edge, he is astonishingly clean-cut, kind and open.

And sharp. A star since his student days at Syracuse, when a bum knee ended his basketball career and left him with nothing to do but study art history, he went on to the University of Michigan, producing a book on film, "Antonioni's Visual Language." At the New Museum, he helped organize the American entry at the latest Venice Biennale, and the Leon Golub show, due at the Corcoran later this year. He has traveled extensively, tracking down every new wrinkle here and abroad. There is the sense that if he hasn't seen it, it probably hasn't happened.

As a result, great hopes are being pinned on Rifkin's ability to bring the Corcoran -- and Washington -- up to date, a challenge he seems to welcome. "I didn't come here to play it safe," he says. "I want to present to this city what I consider to be the best in contemporary art, and examine it as a reflection of our time. That's why I came to Washington," he says. "My interest as an art historian is in art, not the art world. I felt the need to get some distance from art market hype and this art-school-generated thing about success to get a clearer perception of contemporary art."

In addition to organizing exhibitions and making acquisitions, he hopes to launch next fall a series of low-budget, single-gallery shows that can be organ- quickly "to allow for an influx of new ideas by artists you may have heard of but haven't seen. I think that's exactly what the Corcoran needs." Titled "Spectrum," the series would deal not just with painting and sculpture, but with poetry readings, dance performances, video and film screenings. "Often the artists who interest me most are those who are not preoccupied with style or medium, but who have a vision, and will work with any material necessary to realize it," says Rifkin. International in scope, "Spectrum" would weave in area artists "whose work merits that kind of critical approbation."

On the subject of local artists -- always a sticking point for Corcoran curators -- Rifkin is clear."It is critical to be involved in the art of this area, and the chief contribution I can make at this point will be to engage in meaningful dialogue, both in public forums and in the studios I choose to visit. Once I get to know the artists of this area, I'm confident that many of them will be integrated into the contemporary program. Integration is the key word." JACK COWART, National Gallery of Art

FRAMED BY A spectacular view of the Capitol dome, the oversize photographs of four bearded, leather-jacketed, German avant-garde fice at the National Gallery of Art seemed especially odd. What relevance could they possibly have in this Old Masters bastion of Leonardo and Raphael?

Lots, it turns out. Cowart knows these bushy-faced fellows named Baselitz, Penck, Lupertz and Kiefer, and included them in "Expressions: New Art From Germany," an exhibition he organized when he was a curator at the St. Louis Museum of Art (also shown at the Corcoran last summer). Moreover, as the gap gradually closed be- tween what's "new" and what's shown and collected at the National Gallery, it became clear that a special kind of eye was needed to spot and track the artists who might one day make it into the sacred halls.

Cowart, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute who became the National's second curator of 20th century art in late 1983, seems the perfect choice. A respected Matisse and Modern scholar, he also has a longstanding interest in contemporary art and organized many shows of new art for St. Louis. Because no such effort to stay abreast of contemporary activity was under way in the '50s and '60s, the National Gallery is without major works by De Kooning, Gottlieb, Rauschenberg, Johns and other mid- 20th century masters.

"It makes my job easy," says Cowart, "because it's perfectly obvious what we should be doing." The job is made even easier by the National Gallery's distinction as the only museum in town with a national collectors committee and an endowment fund that provides for the purchase of major 20th century works.

Though one of Cowart's primary tasks -- in addition to organizing shows, such as a forthcoming one on Matisse's early years in Nice -- is to track down important 20th century works and find ways to acquire them, he plans to continue keeping tabs on contemporary art. "I still judge shows, and write," he says. He also hopes that Washington's art powers at some point will join to stage a festive event like the avant- garde "Documenta" exhibitions in Germany.

In St. Louis, Cowart established a "Currents" series of shows designed to reflect what was going on all over the world. "I don't think that will happen here at the National Gallery, nor should it," he says. "I don't see our primary goal as one of esthetic speculation. But it certainly should happen in Washington, and I hope someone will do it."