If you take the A train to W. 125th Street and walk toward the newly renovated Apollo Theater, through African Square, and look across the street from the towering Adam Clayton Powell Jr. state office building, you will see the Studio Museum.

Visit the museum first.

More than a reflection of Harlem yesterday, this unique national treasure makes history repeat itself, and in just under 20 years has helped return this community to its rightful place as the cultural hub of black America.

The artworks shown here are among the best in the world, including paintings by such greats as Romare Bearden and photographs by James Van Der Zee, and they depict various aspects of black life throughout the world.

With some artists virtually always in attendance, the museum becomes not just a gallery but a classroom for debate and study.

It is the intensity of the younger artists, many of whom have recently migrated to Harlem or are visiting for the first time, that gives the Studio Museum its flavor from the past.

"This is a very exciting time to be an artist in Harlem, and working at the Studio Museum makes me feel like I'm reliving the Renaissance," said Terry Adkins, 32, a sculptor from Alexandria.

"I have done in two years in Harlem what would have taken five years to do in Washington. There are a lot of museums down there but not a lot of support for local artists."

After a year as an artist in residence at the Studio Museum, Adkins has received a stipend to study sculpture in Zurich. For him it is a dream come true.

And it's not much different for Obaji Nyambi, 25, a painter who lives in Norman, Okla., who was participating last weekend in the Studio Museum's Hale Woodruff Memorial Exhibition, "Emerging Artists from the Southwest."

Leaning back from his paintings to survey the collection, Nyambi said, "This is the first time I have ever had an exhibition outside of Oklahoma. I've never seen this many of my works in one space and it makes me so excited I can hardly speak."

Earlie Hudnall, a photographer from Houston, proudly strolled the gallery explaining his portraits to museum patrons. Like Nyambi, Hudnall has never had an exhibit in New York before.

"The guys who I model myself after -- the James Van Der Zees -- were out of Harlem and they had shows at the Studio Museum," he explained.

"Some people may want to have a show in another, larger museum, but for my first show I could not have found a better place than the Studio Museum."

The museum was incorporated in 1967 as a space for displaying the works of black artists for critical analysis. It was located one flight above a liquor store and fast-food chain in a rented commercial loft.

Despite its space limitations, the museum grew to include an artist-in-residence program, film festivals, workshops and a cooperative school program.

In 1979, the New York Bank for Savings donated a five-story building at 144 W. 125th St. to the museum, and by 1982 the museum was celebrating the talents of African American artists in an elegant new structure redesigned by Bond Ryder.

Today the museum stands not only as a monument to black culture but also as a symbol of what can be accomplished through partnerships between the community and the public and private sectors.

"You can't think about preserving culture unless you can find people willing and trained to do that," said Mary Campbell, an art historian and executive director of the museum.

"Once you begin to save your culture you can think about building on it and derive a whole new source of power from it. The museum is not just a source for leisure activity but a strength in the community."

At a showing at the museum last weekend that featured works by Al Loving as well as artists from the Southwest and others, the museum was filled with patrons not only from the Harlem community but from other parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

It was the sort of mix that would be hard to imagine at many museums in Washington, especially the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum in Southeast. But there was no evidence why a similar concept could not work in the District of Columbia.