It long has occupied a special place in the blueblooded heart of Richmond society. When it opened in the '30s, it was with "ceremonies attended by many persons of importance," according to one writer. As late as 1963, a party held there to open a show of English paintings from the collection of Paul Mellon was described in a Washington newspaper as "the event of the season."

Small wonder. As the preserve of Richmond's upper crust, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts earned an affectionate reputation as the city's second country club, a place to socialize, be seen and indulge a taste for beautiful things. When the city was dry, recalls one resident, the museum was "one of the few places in Richmond where you could get a drink." There were years, says a former employe, "when there was a party in the galleries every night."

Like many museums, the Virginia Museum democratized and prospered during the '70s, expanding its collection and its status as a gem of a regional museum. Its social cachet, however, remained undiminished. To serve on its board of trustees at the pleasure of the governor is to have arrived in the capital city. And with two recent and major gifts from Mellon and Best Products Co. founder Sydney Lewis, and a $22 million new wing to house them, the museum is on the verge of making a national, if not international, name for itself.

There's just one problem. They can't find anyone to run the place.

Since the last director resigned under pressure more than two years ago, the museum's board has interviewed, without success, at least a dozen candidates for the job. As the director's chair has gathered dust, most of the rest of the museum's top staff, including the conservator and both assistant directors, have left for other museums, transforming the Virginia Museum into something of a ghost ship at a time many see as the most critical in its development.

Worst of all, the museum has begun to acquire a reputation as a place for job seekers to avoid, "a real potato," as one candidate put it. "Anybody who interviews there has heard the stories," says Milicent Gaudieri, administrator of the American Association of Museum Directors.

Some speculate that the job's relatively modest state-set salary, $44,900, or the outdated style of the museum's older galleries may have discouraged potential hires. Newly installed board president Bruce Gottwald, president of Ethyl Corp., says the delay is simply the result of not having found the right person. "We have looked at Lord knows how many candidates. We just haven't found the right combination yet."

But according to those who have been interviewed for the job, the reasons for the board's failure are more complicated, rooted, they say, in the Richmond style of genteel reticence, civic pride, a certain insularity and the growing pains of a community that finds its museum on the brink of the big time.

"It's not obstinacy, or chicanery or stubbornness," says one candidate. "It's more a matter of chemistry. There is a quality of civility, a Richmond demeanor, that makes it hard for them to recruit. For the board to turn around to say, 'You're it, you're the one we want,' that's simply not in their nature. They can't do it. That's really the problem . . . . They've got a very fine museum, but in the end, it's very hard for them to ask. Instead of saying 'Will you come work for us, you're the one we want,' it's more a case of 'Don't you think you should be director of the Virginia museum?' "

Other candidates say the board's style reflects the city, a tradition-conscious capital that refers to its most august citizens as First Families of Virginia and expects newcomers to bend to its ways. "There's this whole thing of 'coming from away,' " says another candidate. "When you're introduced to someone they say, 'Well, you come from away.' "

"Richmond is a place that takes moderate decisions," says Edmund Rennolds, trustee and chairman of board's search committee. "They don't go to extremes."

Others are less circumspect. "It seems to be in the nature of the society to feel as though somehow, in the natural order of things, a solution will just . . . emerge," says one director interviewed last year. "That one should not be perceived as being too interested. To be too intense looks like you're being greedy and grasping, which are not attractive social traits, and the Virginia Museum is a social place."

"I think they expected the world to beat a path to their doorstep," says another candidate.

Who's afraid of the Virginia Museum? And why? The question can be heard in Richmond in elegant West End drawing rooms, avant-garde studios and cafes of the city's faded, gracious "Fan" district. The local rumor mill has begun to grind out apparently apocryphal anecdotes about trustees making overtures to potential candidates at dinner parties. And there have been stories in the local papers citing certain board members for stonewalling.

The state's new secretary of education, John Casteen, to whom the state-funded museum reports, as well as his boss, Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, have taken an interest in the search. And there is considerable concern and interest outside the city. "Everywhere I travel around the country, people ask me, 'How's the Virginia Museum? What's going on?' " says Paul Knappenberger, director of the state's Museum of Science in Richmond.

How many museum directors have been considered? "Pick a number," says former board president Charles L. Reed Jr., now acting director of the museum. "Ten, 15, you can put any number you'd like." According to Reed, in more than two years of looking, the search committee actually has offered the job to just one candidate, a situation board critics find incredible.

Board president Gottwald says his trustees are "working darn hard to take care of this problem. "It's been painful taking as long as we have. We have had two relatively short-term directors, we just want to be careful."

Having gone through two directors in the last decade, the board might well be cautious. To administer hundreds of staff, a collection that includes thousands of paintings and sculpture and a budget in the millions is no easy task, and directors of the sprawling, public institutions that museums have become need to possess social graces and business skills as well as scholarship.

The combination of skills must be learned on the job, and finding the right director at the right stage of development is difficult. Museums of Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles have had well-publicized and protracted searches. But after two years, with no director in sight, Virginia may be setting a record, and friends of the museum worry that the board's qualifications are unrealistic.

"They've gotten an idea of the person they want, but that person has to walk on water," says R. Peter Mooz, former director of the museum. "They want a J. Carter Brown," he says, referring to the well-known director of the National Gallery, "but if they find him I guarantee you they won't keep him for long, because everyone is looking for someone like that."

Board critics say that while the board goes fishing for a director among the nation's major museums, it is letting the Carter Browns of tomorrow slip away. The board turned its nose up at at least one candidate from a small museum in the South, despite his stellar references and the fact that he is one of few museum directors in the country with formal business training. That candidate has since gone on to a major northern museum.

"They have a difficult choice if they want to meet those qualifications," agrees Jesse G. Wright, briefly a candidate and director of the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa. "There aren't that many museum directors around and they've looked at nearly everybody. It's very difficult to understand this. My estimation is that they're just having a bad time because they want a Philippe de Montebello, polished, patrician director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's a wonderful museum and I wish them luck."

"They were courteous, kind, interesting," says one candidate who has since been hired by another museum. "But I had heard so much about them. It's more of an attitude." After being summoned to Richmond in tones of great haste, he was annoyed upon arrival to find "there was no urgency at all . . . . I know they went out to Cincinnati and they've gone around to different museums and they would just fly out there and appear unexpectedly."

In fact, a few members of the board did fly out to the Cincinnati Art Museum, after calling director Millard Rogers to say they were coming to see his museum. They explained no further, so Rogers remembers he presumed they were coming to see his "Treasures of the Tower of London" exhibit.

"They all came into my office, five or six of them, and immediately began to talk about what a great place the Virginia Museum was; they spread out blueprints on my desk; Mr. Sydney Lewis talked about his collection. I was absolutely taken aback. They said, 'We think you'd be an asset for Richmond, we'll call you in a few days.' It hit me as a complete surprise."

Rogers decided not to apply for the job, partly because he thought taking on a large, state-funded museum would mean too much politics and not enough art.

Several candidates said that while they were interested in the museum, they withdrew their names after several months because of what they saw as an inability to make a decision.

"I said that I at least had to know what the salary range was and the contract," says one such candidate from a midsize museum. "It was a very practical business decision on my part. All they could do is talk in generalities, and they wanted to come to . . . look around my museum, which would have been quite embarrassing."

Meanwhile, back at the museum, the search goes on. Given the museum's many strengths, many in the museum world predict that when the right person is hired, "everyone will forget about this," as one director said, "and say what a marvelous opportunity that was."

The trustees say no decision is imminent. Is the search committee looking overseas? "No," says Rennolds, "but we probably should. Somebody said there are a lot of good people in England."