Amid dire concerns about government censorship, funding cutbacks and impending recession, the art boom of the '80s came to a screeching halt this year. Nobody seemed sorry to see it go.

"It's the end of the ridiculousness," says National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown. "It's healthier. I'm relieved."

And no wonder. The overheated market, sent higher by new wealth abroad and a falling dollar here, didn't just put important works of art out of the reach of American museums. Combined with shortsighted tax laws (temporarily revised for 1991), they also forced many important works onto the auction market and out of American eyeshot. The most dangerous development came to light when at least four museums were found to be selling works from their collections to Japanese buyers who had approached them privately, offering sums vastly in excess of current market value.

Exhibitions were never better -- Washington saw such blockbusters as Titian at the National Gallery, Albert Pinkham Ryder at the National Museum of American Art, British camera portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. But the big story remained the art market.

This fall the bubble burst -- an event that critic Robert Hughes pegged precisely to the instant when a Julian Schnabel painting failed to meet its ridiculously high reserve price. Whether at that moment or five minutes later, the biggest art boom of the century was over.

It's been all downhill for the auction houses since then, and for galleries as well. Dealers, however, seem more than willing to weather the recession in exchange for a return to sanity.

For the first time in more than a decade, galleries are reporting that volume is way down. "It's a tough year, and, season by season, it's been the toughest I've seen in a long time," says Washington dealer Kathleen Ewing, president of the International Association of Photography Art Dealers, who dates the slump from September. "It's as if the new season never began.

"It's the first time in years that Washington has been seriously affected by recession psychology; usually, we're insulated," says Ewing. "I don't know anyone who's actually lost a job, but there's a great deal more caution in terms of purchases. The market is soft because individuals, as well as corporations, are being cautious with their money. When companies are laying off hundreds of people, they're not likely to spend thousands on art.

"The dealers are being conservative too," she says. "We'll be tightening up on all the minor areas we can, like travel and announcements. Galleries really aren't that different from other retail businesses; they're just more vulnerable. This is a pure luxury business, and we're the first to go. Most of us are living on our savings."

Ewing and others think the art world might be headed for another shakeout like the one that closed several Washington galleries in the late 70s, though with less disastrous results this time around. "Compared to the late '70s, the galleries here now are very stable. Most have been in business for some time. No one is closing," she says, "but it's early in the cycle."

"The correction in the marketplace has been long overdue, and is certainly taking place," says dealer Chris Middendorf, who has ridden the market higher and lower than most during the past year. After selling a $7 million painting by Jackson Pollock, he was hit with a $1 million loss when a Swiss deal on a Cy Twombly painting went sour.

But he sees a silver lining. "There used to be a time when you could go out and buy good art on a budget, and people who didn't have a lot of money could be collectors. They've been out of the market; they couldn't buy.

"But as prices come down," says Middendorf, "new prints, for example, are being issued at $900 instead of $8,000. It's not quite there yet, but it's going to make it fun again for people."

Contemporary artists -- especially lesser-knowns -- stand to benefit, says Middendorf. "Big-name artists whose prices escalated too fast are going to be in trouble. There are a lot of beached whales out there in the $30,000- to $70,000-price range; people will be looking for younger, lower-priced artists.

"As for collectors who've been buying the blue-chip material," says Middendorf, "they're gaining flexibility. They'll be able to buy some great pictures because galleries are willing to make deals.

"We've been telling people: Sit down and figure out what you've always wanted that's been too expensive for you to buy, and go out and find it. You can find those things now and drive hard bargains and get those pictures.

"It's a good time to make deals with dealers," says Middendorf. "Maybe because Europeans are a much older culture, they're used to downturns in the economy and see them as an opportunity to buy. When Americans see a downturn, they run for cover."

Smart European collectors have already been doing just that, among them Count Giuseppe Panza of Milan. Flush with cash after the $32 million sale of his art collection to the Guggenheim Museum last year, Panza came to the United States in November and acquired more than a dozen new works during a trip to California. Stopping off in New York, he bought nearly a dozen more. "It wasn't planned, but I went to the auctions and couldn't believe the prices," he said. "I couldn't resist."