1981, AS THE wine tasters might say, was a good year--not a great year. Pos1 sibly due to shrinking budgets, the museums stayed away from blockbuster exhibitions--"Rodin Rediscovered" at the National Gallery of Art being the notable exception. No unexpected trends jumped out of the cake. The wave of New Wave art that rolled over Manhattan never got to Washington; it might have passed us by. The year will be remembered most for a scattering of first-rate shows, shows that seemed to share nothing except quality. It will also be remembered for a few important people, who, during 1981, departed from the scene.

Joseph H. Hirshhorn, the insatiable collector who gave his name and his collection to the museum on the Mall, died in September, leaving the Hirshhorn his oil leases in Canada plus all the art he still possessed--warehouses full. His final legacy could be the most important art gift to come to this city since the original Hirshhorn donation, though nobody yet knows exactly what he left us. No one except Hirshhorn knew precisely what he'd purchased, but you can bet there'll be some beauties included in the hoard.

We lost Joshua Taylor, too. He died suddenly in April. The director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the National Museum of American Art, he was the best sort of museum man, an egalitarian aristocrat, scholarly, original, tolerant, demanding. Marvin Sadik, director of the National Portrait Gallery next door, also left the scene by moving to his beloved Maine. He gave the Gallery its character, its aura of high elegance. He, too, will be missed.

So will Joan Mondale, who lost her unofficial job when the Reagans came to town. Art never had a better friend in the higher zones of government. No one has replaced her, though the arts obviously still have important friends: budget cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities appear to be less brutal than had been feared. The Institute of Museum Services, however, came dangerously close to extinction, though for the moment it still survives.

Certain museum shows stand out, and this year the Hirshhorn had more than its share of the best. Cornering the market on the avant-garde, old and new, it launched the year with "The Avant-Garde in Russia: 1910-1930"--a show that astonished everyone with its freshness and innovation. Winding up the year is the just-opened "Metaphor" show, which introduces a segment of today's avant-garde in what is by far the most adventurous exploration of new art to turn up in this city in over a decade. In between, a second "Directions" show continued the museum's ongoing effort to make sense of current trends, while the R.B. Kitaj retrospective introduced American audiences to one of the most unique and hermetic artists now at work.

The Corcoran continued to make waves with several strong photography shows--Henri Cartier-Bresson was a popular highlight--but apart from recent watercolors by California's Billy Al Bengston and oils by "New Image" painter Neil Jenney, the drift was strictly toward the conservative. The 37th Biennial, like the 36th, was an update on five artists who made their reputations in the '60s, though few had been seen in any depth in Washington.

But along with its successes, the Corcoran had more flops than usual, raising the specter of lowered esthetic standards in the service of improved fiscal health. The "Friends 20th Anniversary Show" was the first visual offense, and the show of paintings by Wyeth-worshiper Bob Timberlake was the worst.

At the Phillips, the big news was the temporary departure of some of their greatest masterworks--including the Renoir "Boating Party"--for the purpose of touring the country (and possibly the world) and rattling the tin cup for the inflation-beleaguered museum. Making the best of it, the Phillips seized the opportunity to show in depth some of the artists whose work is usually in storage for lack of wall space. The fine little Arthur Dove exhibit, and the current Arthur B. Davies show, were the worthy and revealing results.

At the National Gallery, the giant Rodin retrospective was--and still is--the big visual event of the year, challenging the East Building with its heroic scale and mega-tonnage, including a full-scale cast of the famed "Gates of Hell," "The Thinker," "The Kiss," and other contemporary icons. In a more intimate vein, there was a memorable little gathering of Kandinsky's "Improvisations" at the Gallery and a first-rate show of the work of the 16th-century German artist Hans Baldung Grien. The Kongo exhibit was also worth remembering; the show commemorating the 100th birthday of Picasso was not. Picasso deserved better.

The major event on the commercial scene was the celebration of the first anniversary of "406," the pioneering art complex at 406 Seventh St. NW, which not only successfully transplanted five galleries from elsewhere in Washington, but also attracted nearly a dozen others. With the reopening of WPA (Washington Project for the Arts) in handsome new quarters next door, the long-awaited Gallery Row project now under way across the street and the Lansburgh Center a few doors down the street, a new art hub has clearly been established in downtown Washington.

And though increasing numbers of Washington artists are having their moments in the sun, the biggest moment of all this year came to Kenneth Noland, the Washington Color Painter, who briefly, very briefly, held the record for the most expensive picture by a living American artist ever sold at auction. One of his 1960 "target" paintings fetched $300,000 at Sotheby's in November. Three weeks later, a $420,000 Andrew Wyeth landscape bumped Noland from the top. Ars longa, gloria brevis.