There are plenty of arts surprises in Northern Virginia, and one of the most enjoyable is the Arlington Arts Center, located in an old county elementary school. Currently, the center is featuring a crafts exhibit entitled "Lloyd Herman Selects."

Only a block away from the Virginia Square metro stop, at 3550 Wilson Blvd. (telephone 524-1494), the center is a treat to visit. Filled with artists' studios, it is a bright and busy haven where the smell of paint drifts down the hallways to mingle with music from the radios some of the artists keep. Through it all, people move about quietly.

As for the exhibit--it was selected by Lloyd Herman, director of the Renwick Gallery, from the work of Northern Virginia artists--don't expect any rough edges. Paintings are well-framed and every piece is labeled clearly, leaving no doubt about the care that was taken by all concerned.

The show features 64 very different works by 21 artists. While a few of them border on silly (for example, one work features a pair of wool boots and a $250 price tag) most are impressive. There are, for instance, stunning tapestries, elegant porcelains, unique painted silks and woven fiber sculptures.

The show is well-lit and nicely displayed. The one drawback: the display area is split between two floors, so the exhibit loses its cohesiveness.

The exhibits change once a month. The center is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. Public Exhibits

The Athenaeum has on display a photography exhibit through Dec. 8. Five local photographers--Reed Baker, Marianne Keffer, Carol Siegel, Paula Sussman and Sherie Wheaton--after winning awards at the Arlington Arts Center show, have joined forces to put on "Found Objects/Familiar Things Awards Exhibition." Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. 201 Prince St., Alexandria, 548-0035.

The Greater Reston Arts Center has "Art for Gifts" through Dec. 24. Artists from the area have put together an exhibit with gift-giving in mind. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. 11400 Washington Plaza West, Reston, 471-9242.

The Art Barn. Members of the Arlington Craft Guild exhibit their fine crafts of weaving, pottery and baskets through Dec. 19. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. 2401 Tilden St. NW (in Rock Creek Park), 426-6719.

Photographic Exibit at Arlington County Courthouse. Landscape photographs of Virginia Civil War sites by James C. Darcey. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Room 201, 1400 N. Courthouse Rd. Arlington, 558-2261. Private Galleries

Gallery 4 features folk art from around the country. The opening reception will be from 4 to 6 p.m. Dec. 4. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 115 S. Columbus St., Alexandria, 548-4600.

Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria, 836-8564.