James R. McAlee, 54, a senior partner in the Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter who also chaired the acquisitions committee at the Corcoran Gallery, died of cancer Dec. 28 at his home in Chevy Chase.

Mr. McAlee came to Washington in 1959. For the next two years, he was the legal assistant to the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He joined Arnold & Porter, where he was a trial and securities lawyer, in 1961.

He also was an authority on law relating to the fine arts and was an adviser to museums and galleries throughout the country. In addition to chairing the Corcoran's acquisitions committee, he had served on the board of the Friends of the Corcoran.

Mr. McAlee was a native of Easton, Pa. He was a graduate of Princeton University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He was a magna cum laude graduate of the Harvard University Law School, where he served on the board of the law review. Before moving to Washington, he spent four years with a Houston law firm.

His marriage to the former Janet Davidson Powell ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Sameeran, of Chevy Chase; a son by his first marriage, Richard G., of Baltimore; his mother, Carolyn Elizabeth McAlee, and two sisters, Elizabeth McGiffert and Carolyn Patricia Walters, all of Easton, and a grandchild.