In 1308, the great Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the cathedral of Siena. Three years later it was finished, and on a sunny June morning, as the townspeople cheered, the great "Maesta" was carried to the cathedral in a joyous procession.

Last July, six centuries later, California sculptor Guy Dill had just completed a rather different kind of sculpture, commissioned by the government, to go in front of the new federal building in Huron, S.D. And the townspeople were soon out marching again -- straight to their congressman.

They didn't like the $25,000 abstract "Hoe-Down," which a Huron paper described as "four large steel plates propped up by telephone poles." Of the 14,000 residents of Hubert Humphrey's birthplace, 5,000 signed and presented a petition to Rep. James Adbnor (R-S.D.) saying they wanted such "government waste" stopped and the sculpture removed.

That is only one of the problems facing GSA's Art-in-Architecture program, which since 1963 has commissioned 173 sculptures, murals, fiberworks, crafts, and art in other media at a cost of $6 million. GSA allocates one-half of 1 percent of all new federal building costs for this purpose, making it a nation's No. 1 art patron in direct commissions.

About 20 percent of these projects have drawn some public complaints, which generally die down within a year. The really controversies, however -- the $100,000 Claes Oldenburg "Batcolumn" in Chicago, the George Sugarman "People Sculpture" in Baltimore and now the Dill flap in Huron -- have brought the selection procedures and the whole program into question. Abdnor has introduced legislation to give citizens more voice in choosing the art and has called hearings for Now. 14.

It is a critical time for a program whose participants read like a "Who's Who" of American art: Calder, Oldenburg, di Suvero, Nevelson, Noguchi, Rickey, Snelson and painter Frank Stella and Alex Katz, among many others. Styles range from the realism of Leonard Baskin and George Segal to the minimal abstraction of Al Held and Robert Mangold.

The program has allowed major American artists to work on a scale they had never attempted, and has inspired cities and states all over the country to set up their own percent-for-art programs. Indeed, GSA -- along with NEA, which runs the related "Art in Public Places" matching grants program -- has led the biggest public art boom since the WPA.

There have been many successes. But when people get upset, nothing disturbs them like public art. In 1975, a Seattle critic described an installation by Isamu Noguchi as : "Rocks. Five rocks. Five pink rocks. Five pink rocks at $20,000 a rock. Don't laugh. It's your money as well as mine." A smilar lament appeared last month in The State of Columbia, S.C.: Its editorial called for the relocation of Barbara Naijna's $65,000, 7,000-pound sculpture, "Right Turn on White" -- installed at the Strom Thurmond Federal Building -- and even approved "the sentiment" of a group of protesters who tried to disfigure the sculpture with spray paint.

Through the years, the Art-in-Architecture program -- at $1.2 million for the past three years, one of the smallest in a GSA budget of $5 billion -- has caused some of the biggest headaches.

Opposition began when the program began in 1963, when artists were chosen by the architects. The first big protest came over Robert Motherwell's large, abstract expressionist mural for the new Boston City Hall. "The Kennedy Assassination." When a reporter asked a passer-by how she felt about it, she replied, "It's an outrage." "It is still not clear," says Don Thalacker, head of the Art-in Architecture program, "whether she was talking about the event or the mural. But the next morning the headline read 'Boston Outraged.' It proved a self-fulfilling prophacy.

In 1966, still stinging from the controversy and with unprecedented cost increase in construction, GSA brought the program to a halt. It was revived in 1972, when with the encouragement of NEA head Nancy Hanks, GSA head Arthur Sampson restored the funding levels and drew up new guidelines, under which expert panels appointed by NEA examined the sites and nominated the artists. The GSA administrator retained the right of final choice, as he does today.

The first sculpture in the new era went up in October 1974, with a procession through the streets of Chicago. The artist was Alexander Calder, and his huge, $250,000 "Flamingo" turned out to be one of his greatest works -- and one of the U.S. government's best buys. It is worth well over $1 million today.

here was some protest, but not much.

But in the Ford administration, Jack K. Eckerd arrived at GSA to fine himself under pressure from an irate group of Baltimore judges who virulently protested the installation of George Sugarman's playful "People Sculpture" in front of the Garmatz Building in Baltimore. They said they feared that muggers could hide within the $98,000 sculpture, and exerted pressure through Congress. Eckered reacted by suspending all further commissions for 18 months until Baltimore, however, retained the work by staging a huge effort in its behalf.

If also was under Eckerd that another big public protest took place, again on behalf of a sculpture. Grand Rapids was due to get a work by Mark di Suvero which GSA threatened not to accept because it was too unlike the maquette he had originally submitted. Hundreds of letters poured in, along with a petition from thousands of schoolchildren insisting that the people of Grand Rapids wanted their di Suvero. They got it.

Jay Solomon, who succeeded Eckerd, had a strong commitment to the program. With the backing of Joan Mondale, he commissioned $2.5 million in art-- more than one-third of the total expenditures to date -- adding repair and renovation projects to the program. It was a brief golden age, with 70 artists commissioned to work on 40 differenct buildings. Earth art, light sculpture, photography, crafts and the building arts were added as possibilities for future commissions. Also, very quietly, Solomon saw to it that an increased effort was made by NEA to find expert selection panelists who lived closer to proposed sites.

Each new GSA administrator has been watched by a nervous art community to see how well he can take the heat. They are now nervously watching Rowland G. Freeman III, ex-admiral and Navy supply expert, who took the GSA helm last July.

Freeman was immediately confronted with Huron's "Hoe-Down" -- located problematically in the district of Rep. Abdnor, ranking minority member of the House public works subcommittee, one of four congressional bodies that oversees GSA. Abdnor confronted Freeman with the Huron petition, and said he wanted "Hoe-Down" removed.

Meanwhile, Abdnor's committee nixed the two Art-in-Architecture proposals presented to them since the Huron trouble began -- repair and renovation projects for Savannah and Omaha. "I plan to withhold any additional funds for this project until changes take place in the selection procedures," he said last week. To that end, he has introduced a bill, HR 5545, " to establish a procedure for acquisition and installation of works of art in public buildings."

The protest has not rubbled GSA's Freeman, an affable, chunky man of 56, who said last week, "I don't view the Huron situation as a big flap. Anything with art involved is going to stir a lot of emotionalism. Even Johann Strauss had problems with his waltzes."

"But local involvement is something I'm concernedc about," said Freeman last week in his office, which contains no art, "so I've asked the Art-in-Architecture and NEA people to form a task force and report on ways to increase it."

"This is public money, and I can't ignore 5,000 voices," he said of the Huron problem. "But I also think removing a work of art like that is inappropriate. It sets an undesirable precedent. You should leave such a piece, even if it's controversial, at least long enough for people to get used to it. Look at Oldenburg's 'Batcolumn' in Chicago. At first they hated it. Now they love it."

Freeman stood his ground recently in Atlanta when Washington artist Sam Gilliam went to install a large $50,000 drape painting in the reception area of the new courthouse. The judges protested, and Gilliam was offered what he considers a better space in the main lobby. "But if he hadn't been happy, we would have gone ahead with the orginal plan," says Freeman. "That's where I draw the line."

The GSA-NEA task force is seeking ways to improve community participation and selection procedures It is an opportune time, for as long as Joan Mondale is around, Art-in-architecture is as safe as it's ever going to be.

And the problems, at last, have become clear. GSA can no longer simply swoop into a town and plant a piece of sculpture. People need to be prepared, particularly for art as uncommunicative as much of what is currently being produced.

Washington sculptor Ed McGowin -- whose recently completed narrative sculpture in Jackson, Miss., met with public acclaim -- said it best: "You can take the most intelligent person in the world and show him a hole in the ground or a pile of rocks, and if he doesn't know the art context it came from, it's inevitably going to look like a hole in the ground or a pile of rocks." Nearby museums and arts councils can help in educating the public and introducing the artist and the art to the new neighbors.

One fault in GSA's procedures is the fact that artists are usually not commissioned until the buildings are occupied -- sometimes three years or more. It is the nature of modern architecture, since Mies and the Barcelona Pavillion, to eschew integrated art as "decoration," But surely nothing would be lost -- and much might be gained -- by bringing artists and architects together again at the design stage. That is what produced happy marriages like the Calder and the atrium of National Gallery East, and might even afford the public something more interesting than the same old sculpture-on-the-plaza routine.

According to program head Thalacker, attempts have been made to give commissions earlier, but "the program stops and starts, starts and stops, and just when we begin to get caught up, we find ourselves behind again. Meanwhile, the buildings go up and we're too late."

Abdnor has come up with an idea that could work: The NEA panel of experts (including more local experts) could submit its list of three to five artists to GSA as before. But at that point, six representatives from the area would be called in to help the GSA adminstrator make the final decision. Abdnor suggests that the governor of the state appoint the six. That needs thinking out. But it would give the GSA some help and give the local a voice. If no agreement were possible, the project could simply be scratched, and the money put into funding art in more hospitalable towns.

And as for Huron, S.D., if they don't want "Hoe-Down," why not sell it to nearby Brookings, which has asked for it? Or put it up for sale on the open market? Presumably a year will bring acceptance. But it not, no town should have to live with art it loathes.