Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall settled back on a picnic table bench outside the Art Barn, his pointy-toed black cowboy boots sticking out under his trousers. "It's important to support public art," he said, "After all, artists are workers -- and many of them are unemployed."

Leaving aside whatever else the Department of Labor may do for artists, Marshall did his part to support public art by shelling out $25 Saturday night to attend the "Dance-in-the-Park" benefit for the Art Barn in Rock Creek Park.

The Art Barn is a stone and wood house in Rock Creek Park, across from Pierce Mill.For the past 10 years it has been run as an "alternative" art gallery by a citizen group called the Art Barn Association in cooperation with the National Park Service. In that past decade they have shown 1,000 artists and have offered free art classes.

"Do you believe this dance floor?" asked Mavie de la Pena, in sequined white dance costume, tapping her silver sandal on the concrete of the parking lot where she and tuxedoed dancer Vic Daumit did a few dance numbers for the invited guests. Their stay was brief, because they had to hurry to their next job at a Knights of Columbus convention in Bethesda.

No one else had problems dancing at nightfall, after a box supper, to the jazz and pop music of a group called BBS.

The guests were friends of friends who run the Art Barn, and a few were artists like Mark Rooney, who wore two little gold loop earnings in one ear, and Kim Macneary, both of whom described their work as abstract. Inside the Art Barn, a silent auction on donated paintings and drawings was not going very well. Outside, Sen. Quentin Burdick (D-N.D.) debated the merits of the Chrysler bailout with Marshall.

"What I think is that there might be a rush to the money market for help," said Burdick. "You can't buy 'em all out."

Marshall nodded. "Our calculation was that Chrysler would cost the government more if it went under."

But Art Barn founder Polly Logan, in long flowered dress and shocking pink shawl, would talk of only one thing.

"I want to talk about art," she said, pulling one guest away from brief conversation with another. Several artists had approached Logan 10 years ago about the lack of galleries to exhibit in, she said. Logan went to the head of the National Park Service for help.

"He said, 'I'll have all those pictures hanging aroung my neck,'" she recounted. "I said, 'No you wouldn't. They would be hanging around my neck.' So one day, we drove around looking at places. When we saw this house, I said, 'We'll take it.'"

Park Service and Interior Department officials were profusely thanked with certificates of appreciation and speeches for their help with the Art Barn.Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus could not be there to pick up his award, so Assistant Secretary Robert Herbst picked it up along with his own.

William Whalen, former National Park Service director, also could not be there to pick up his, because he was "transferred," according to Rock Creek Park superintendent Jim Redmond, from his job three weeks ago.

"Oh, well," sighed one Art Barn volunteer. "He was very supportive of us during his tenure."