Should penguins be allowed on Metro, even if they are only painted penguins, waddling through the transit system in a series of colorful panels on a station wall? Would the birds add some fun to the sober surroundings, or would their antics insult Metro's passengers and award-winning architecture?

These are among the issues to be decided as Metro weighs a proposal to display the penguin panels and 13 other artworks in seven stations for one year.

An advisory committee of art experts has begun to evaluate the works, and plans to make recommendations to Metro's board of directors by the end of the month. If the Metro board approves, the sculpture, paintings, wall hangings and other visual works by local artists would start appearing in the stations by spring.

"I've never been more encouraged," said Eliot Pfanstiehl, chairman of the MetroArt Consortium, a regional coalition that has worked for more than a year to organize the art exhibit. Pfanstiehl said the advisory committee members in their first meeting "were very supportive of the project . . . but the vote that counts is the Metro board."

Board members express a range of attitudes, reflecting the historical tension between serving the needs of Metro's patrons and resisting any visual interference with the system's unique design.

"I would like to see it," board Chairman Joseph Alexander said of the MetroArt proposal. "I think we need a little color in the stations . . . . Stations are people places, and I think we ought to make it pleasing to people."

"I'm not resistant to it," Metro board member Cleatus Barnett said of the art project. "But I have seen things passed off as art that are offensive to the public . . . . The idea of beauty existing in the eye of the beholder applies here."

So before any piece goes on display, the advisory committee and the board have to decide whether each artwork is aesthetically compatible with the powerful, grim grandeur of Metro's dimly lit caverns, formed by soaring concrete vaults and smoothly tiled platforms.

"Both of them can exist complementing each other," said Emanuel Mevorah, Metro's deputy director for architecture. "But you have to be careful of the quality of art. Metro shouldn't be a backdrop for trivial art."

Until Metro makes a decision, the consortium will not identify the 14 proposed works or their creators. But word of the penguin panels leaked out, and the early discussion illustrates the conflict between Metro's conservative streak and its willingness to lighten up.

Metro board member Carlton R. Sickles said he thought the penguins were delightful. But a source familiar with the advisory committee's deliberations said one participant objected to portraying the system's patrons as comical birds.

Ideally, the artwork would serve as an "enhancement of one's daily life," said Steven Weitzman, a Silver Spring sculptor credited as the "conceptual daddy" of the MetroArt project. Washington's Metro "is the most beautiful of any I have ever seen," he said, adding that "there is a way of accommodating that attitude" with art.

Metro's board felt the same way from the start, voting in 1975 to welcome gifts or loans of artwork for display in the system, if they involved no cost to the transit agency. Since then, three proposals have been made, with only one success: The City of Alexandria in 1983 sponsored a one-year exhibit of several artworks in the King Street station.

Weitzman said Metro has been receptive to his idea. Metro officials say the MetroArt project has proceeded this far because proponents approached the transit agency with a clear idea, a broad base of support and a corporate sponsor.

The consortium includes eight local arts councils, Metro, and First American Banks, which has offered $50,000 to cover the costs of installation, maintenance, insurance and a $1,000 stipend for each artist.

The consortium selected seven stations across the region: Metro Center and Gallery Place in the District; Ballston, Vienna and King Street in Virginia, and Silver Spring and New Carrollton in Maryland.. The group proposed several sites for art display at each station and asked Metro to decide which sites to use, based on considerations of passenger convenience and safety.

More than 100 local artists submitted entries. A Virginia architect, an associate curator at the National Museum of American Art and a University of Maryland art professor served on a panel to select the 14 pieces submitted to Metro. Metro's panel, representing the architect of the Capitol, the Smithsonian Institution and the federal Commission of Fine Arts, reviews the works to ensure that they are appropriate for the nation's capital and Metro.

The Paris, Stockholm and Montreal rapid transit systems are among the many worldwide that display art. Since 1981, U.S. transit systems building new lines have been allowed to use up to 1 percent of federal construction funds for art. The Atlanta and Baltimore systems have used this money to incorporate sculpture, mobiles, photography and other art forms into all of their stations.

Metro chose to put all its precious funds into construction, but designed the system to be a masterpiece itself -- a monument woven through a city of monuments. Since then, Metro officials and staff have fiercely protected the system from visual violation, whether by grime, graffiti, bright lights, advertisements, or vendors. They even resisted signs with patron information.

Food is not allowed. Cars are yanked from service as soon as graffiti appears or a seat is slashed. Ads in the stations are limited to illuminated cases. Newspapers are sold only on the mezzanine outside the fare gates, and only in specially designed racks, which tend to be too expensive for lurid tabloids.

Battles were fought over whether to place horizontal signs with station names on the concrete walls. Designers resisted the signs; the board insisted on them.

The designers also argued against printing the name of the station on the pylons outside the entrance, preferring just the Metro symbol and a color stripe. They were overruled.

As a result, riders are dazzled by the cleanliness, sometimes dazed by the similarity of the stations and exits, and often frustrated by the subtlety of the signs.

Barnett, who had opposed advertising in Metro as an "obscenity," said the purity of the system's design "has largely been maintained." But he said Metro officials "can't take it for granted. We have to be ever vigilant."

Yet, he said, "I recognize that art is important to other people."