Dr. Harold Stern, director of the Freer Gallery of Art since 1970, died yesterday in Georgetown University Hospital after a long illness. He was 54.

Dr. Stern was an internationally known scholar in the field of Japanese antiquities and dedicated his career in the art world to improving cultural exchanges between the United States and the Far East.

During his tenure as director of the Freer, which houses one of the Western world's foremost collections of Near and Far Eastern art, the gallery acquired numerous pieces of Japanese-Buddhist sculpture, Japanese screen paintings from the Ukiyoe school, and Chinese, Japanese and Near Eastern ceramics.

"The field of Oriental art studies has lost one of its most distinguished scholars . . . a dedicated and concerned member of the Smithsonian community whose allegiance to excellence brought the Freer Gallery even wider recognition as an internationally known center for the study of Far and Near Eastern cultures," said S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Dr. Stern studied Japanese while serving in the Army during World War II. He earned a doctorate after the war in Far Eastern Art history. In 1949, he came to the Freer from Michigan on a research scholarship, was appointed the gallery's assistant director in 1962 and became director in 1971.

An author of numerous articles and books on Oriental art, Dr. Stern was also a member of the United States-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Exchange Museum Interchange Subcommittee, the Japan-America Society of Washington and the Cosmos Club. Dr. Stern also helped arrange loans of Korean and Japanese art exhibitions for the U.S.

"His art interests were not limited though to just the Far East. He was also very interested in contemporary artists and liked to see them get the recognition they deserve," said Thomas Lawton, assistant director of the Freer.

Dr. Stern is survived by his father, Meyer D. Stern and brother, Dr. Aaron Stern, both of Ann Arbor, Mich, and a sister, Dorothy Hochman of Detroit. The family requests that in lieu of flowers contributions be sent to charities.