The National Academy of Design's Annual Exhibition is upon us once again. This, its 157th, proves that the Academy's recent attempts to upgrade its annuals is bearing fruit. The overall quality of this show is high, with far fewer embarrassingly silly works than in previous annuals and a few paintings and prints that would do anyone proud.
This is probably the result of a change of policy regarding the exhibition. According to John Dobkin, director of the academy, ''This year, for the first time since the 1880s, all artists, whether members or not, have had their works examined by the jury. This year's annual is truly an open show with fresh, new talent.''
In other words, members of the academy were no longer assured that their works would automatically be hung - a considerable improvement over the prior policy, which may have been kind to the veteran members whose work was no longer of much interest, but which was most unkind to the viewers, who had to put up with such dated and inferior work.
The academy will make up for this trend toward democratization, however, by limiting the 1983 annual to members only and by not subjecting them to jury selection. Beyond that, the plan is to continue annually alternating open-juried shows with members-only exhibitions.
The annual itself is a mixed bag of paintings, sculpture, prints, watercolors , and drawings -- with the paintings and prints coming off best. As a matter of fact -- and this is the first time I can remember this happening - two prints are among the best 10 or so works on view. For my money, ''Armadillo Walk,'' an etching by Alan James Robinson, practically steals the show, with William T. Livesay's etching ''Late Autumn'' coming in not far behind. Both are technically brilliant and intriguing and prove very forcefully that ''traditional'' etching is far from dead.
Among the paintings I was particularly struck by Herman Rose's oil ''Still Life with African Sculpture, Shells, etc.'' (a beautiful piece of painting!), John Heliker's ''In The Studio,'' Richard Bober's ''Sherry,'' and Richard N. Birkett's ''Stiges.''
Also outstanding are Emily Barnett's ''Irma'' and Nell Blaine's ''Cot and Table with Flowers.''
Among the watercolors, I particularly liked Robert T. Handeville's ''Off Season.''
On the other hand, the less said about the sculpture, the better.
And I feel much the same way about Paul Cadmus's ridiculous egg tempera ''Spring Cleaning'' and Leland Bell's silly, but award-winning, ''Standing Self-Portait.'' Neither should have been included in this show - regardless of the outstanding reputations of both men.
Apart from that, however, I enjoyed the annual and highly recommend it to anyone who particularly appreciates the more conservative and traditional forms of contemporary art - and to anyone who thinks that nothing of quality is being produced today except by our more ''advanced'' painters and printmakers.
At the National Academy of Design through March 28.