FOR MORE THAN 10 years, the Museum of African Art has been a small but active cultural institution in Washington. Located in several townhouses on A Street NE (including the first Washington residence of Frederick Douglass), the museum has become far more visible in the past few years because of increased interest in African culture. It provides a wealth of offerings: rotating exhibitions of textiles, carvings, musical instruments and jewelry; an interdisciplinary library; and 100,000 slides, photos and films of Africa, bequeathed to it by the late Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon. The museum staff conducts classes, children's workshops and special events, many of which are free.

Despite the burgeoning interest in its acticities, the museum is facing the harsh reality known to all cultural institutions - lack of resources. This isn't a new phenomenon for the museum. It has survived over the years on small contributions, gifts and grants. But the possibility of cutting back its operations in order to cut costs is particularly discomforting in light of the growing demand for its services.

To help meet its needs, the museum has been offered a $225,000 "challenge grant" from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In order to receive the funds, the museum must match the grant through public contributions; th first one-thrid of the total required from the public is due August 31st. The "challenge" is clearly there - for the city and for the nation, for corporate benefactors as well as for individual donors. One way of another, the public is going to have to pitch in, if the Museum of African Art is to survive - as we think it must.