Supporters of the scarred National Endowment for the Arts are wondering about the fate of that agency as Republicans prepare to take over Congress and critics of the NEA assume a number of key positions.

Will the NEA keep on as before: the perennial hot potato, but managing to survive? Will the GOP be so busy with the big-ticket, high-impact items in its "Contract With America" that the relatively small endowment manages to slide by? Or will the agency become a target for the bureaucratic, and philosophical, overhaul promised by the new leadership?

This much is certain: Calling the shots will be some outspoken politicians who have often blasted public funding of the arts -- and, occasionally, money for the humanities.

The NEA, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, will have few friends at the top. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is in line to be speaker of the House, Rep. Richard Armey (R-Tex.) is considered the likely majority leader, and Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) has been mentioned as a possible majority whip. The American Arts Alliance, which grades members of Congress on support for the NEA and other arts issues, has given all three rock-bottom ratings.

For the last six years, since the sexually explicit photography of Robert Mapplethorpe outraged opponents of public funding of the arts, the NEA has been under siege. This caldron of controversy simmers, then explodes, then moves to the back burner but nevers disappears. Controversial arts grants became an issue in the 1992 presidential campaign, raised by conservative candidate Patrick Buchanan. Last summer, $150 of public funds found their way to a razor-blade wielding performance artist, prompting attacks from both sides of the Senate aisle and a punitive budget cut for the NEA.

In the fine print of the "Contract With America" -- a virtual bible for some of the new leadership -- the arts and humanities endowments are cited as the source of half a billion dollars in budget cuts over the next five years -- which would mean huge reductions, but not elimination. The Kennedy Center, which receives $19 million a year, is also listed as a place to chop.

Gingrich was asked recently on "This Week With David Brinkley" about the future of the endowments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "I personally would privatize all of them," he said.

The same question was posed last week on the show to Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the likely Senate majority leader. "Everything ought to be on the table," Dole said.

Tom Kilgannon, communications director of the Christian Action Network, which opposes the endowments, estimates that the NEA may have lost as many as 20 congressional supporters at the polls this year. "Victory is finally within our reach," he declared. "If the Republicans are serious about balancing the budget, they have to make choices about getting rid of the NEA and NEH."

One strategist for the administration's cultural policy agrees: "There has never before been this degree of threat." Opponents of arts funding are waiting in the wings to take over critical committees and subcommittees, which will be considering not only the budgets of the NEA -- along with the NEH and the Institute of Museum Services -- but also the basic authorization that allows each agency to exist.

Reauthorization will probably be handled by the subcommittee on labor-management relations under the House Committee on Education and Labor. Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), who once voted for an amendment that would have killed the NEA, is the likely chairman of the full committee, to be renamed the Empowerment Committee. The authorizing subcommittee will probably go to one of two NEA foes: Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), who once voted to kill the NEA and another time to cut its budget by more than half; or Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), who has crafted proposals to restructure the NEA and give more money to the states and has voted for every proposal to reduce or eliminate the NEA that has come before him.

Things may be friendlier in the Senate, where reauthorization will begin in the arts and humanities subcommittee of the Labor and Human Resources Committee. Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), a supporter of arts funding, is in line to head the subcommittee, and the full committee chairmanship may go to Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.). Kassebaum sponsored an unsuccessful amendment in 1991 to cut the NEA budget by 10 percent -- which in this new climate is considered not so bad by supporters of arts funding.

'A Lot We Don't Know'

Even if the arts, humanities and museum agencies are renewed, they will be fighting for money. The Senate Appropriations Committee may be led in the coming Congress by Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), who is generally supportive of the endowments. Or it could be headed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is known for grilling arts administrators and Smithsonian executives. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who has voted regularly against NEA appropriations, will be a major domo on either the budget or appropriations committee. Of these three leaders only Nickles supported the 1993 Helms amendment to eliminate the NEA; last year all three voted with Helms to stop the NEA from financing any work that involved human mutilation.

In the House, the arts budgets have been handled for decades by the Interior subcommittee of the appropriations committee, where Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) firmly protected the endowments. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) will probably take that chair. Regula is considered a friend -- though a sometimes critical one -- by arts administrators. But the full House Appropriations Committee is almost certain to be headed by Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who has voted consistently against arts-funding bills.

And anti-NEA feelings will be running all the way to the bottom of the pecking order. Rep.-elect Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) is among the incoming freshmen who argued in their campaigns that the NEA should be scrapped. His election prompted one backer of arts funding to moan: "Sonny Bono already harmed the arts in his previous singing career."

Rep. Clifford Stearns (R-Fla.) said that before the election a number of his colleagues had indicated that they wanted to "reform" the NEA. And those numbers only grew on Election Day, he said. "I think in the freshman class there are about 38 to 40 who would consider the NEA a controversial government agency."

The horizon is so bleak that some people working on arts and humanities projects have already given up on the new Congress, at least for a time. Planners of the Smithsonian's proposed National African American Museum have decided not to fight for approval next year; a bill to establish it died just short of passage in the Senate last session. Rather than try again in the uncertain climate, the Smithsonian has decided to wait and see -- because the GOP can't kill a project if it doesn't come up for a vote.

In fact, wait-and-see has become the prevailing attitude.

"The arts and humanities have never been a partisan issue, and they shouldn't be. And the arts and humanities have a lot of Republican friends," said Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, executive director of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, a wide-ranging advisory group. "I think there is a lot we don't know."

Likewise, many Republicans say it is too soon to know what will happen. "With the Republican majority, the American people have said we should look carefully at all government programs, and the NEA is no different," said Stearns of Florida. However, he added, "it is premature to say what will be done."

People are watching Gingrich for answers. The speaker-presumptive has voted for every amendment offered during his tenure to abolish the NEA. Arts funding is not particularly popular with his constituents, either. Cobb County, Ga. -- the heart of Gingrich country -- became a flash point in the arts wars in August 1993 when county commissioners killed support of programs they considered too friendly to the "gay lifestyle," as they called it. Plan for Survival

The election was not an unequivocal win for NEA opponents. In Houston, for example, Democrat Ken Bentsen won a seat in the House despite a well-financed ad campaign by his opponent attacking Bentsen for his membership on the board of an arts group criticized for presenting sexually explicit work. The group received 12 percent of its budget from public sources, including the NEA.

Small victories such as that one have NEA supporters hoping that they might devise some strategy to win on the Hill. So far the agency, led by Chairman Jane Alexander, plans to continue its national effort to publicize its successes and underscore the local economic benefits of its grants to museums and concerts and teaching programs in virtually every legislative district in the country. It believes grass-roots America benefits from the relatively small endowment budgets -- $167 million at the NEA next year -- and it hopes that can be turned into supportive letters and phone calls to Congress.

Strategists at the endowment are also counting on the Senate to restrain a more revolutionary House -- after all, some strong advocates, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), survived the election. Kennedy and others helped save the endowments in 1980 when the Reagan administration targeted them for a gutting.

But some supporters argue for a more aggressive approach. Jill Bond, director of the Artsave project of the lobbying group People for the American Way, calls Republican attacks an attempt to "turn the clock back on artistic expression and the humanities." Bond said the cultural community must fight: "I think it is important that they don't cave in, that they remember what the mission is, not forget who the constituencies are and they stay on message."

As they look to the future, many backers of the endowments remember the past. The last time the NEA was reauthorized was in 1990. The Republicans were in the minority in both houses, but they had the White House. Gingrich was the one who told President Bush that he should support restrictions on NEA grants. Bush was a moderate on arts funding; Gingrich was aggressively against it.

"People do not understand why their tax money would go to pay an artist whose art is urinating on a picture of Jesus," Gingrich said, taking some creative license in describing a small grant that supported artist Andres Serrano, whose work included a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine. "This is sort of nonsense in most of America, although it apparently makes some sense in some very limited areas."

But in that case Gingrich settled for shortening the NEA's leash rather than choking it outright. In the end, he joined the House majority and supported renewal of the NEA. That was his approach when he was out of power; now people want to know what he'll do in the speaker's chair.