While most people are asking what government can do for them, some Detroit art lovers have been asking what they can do for government.

Their answer is a painting by Washington artist Sam Gilliam -- the first private gift ever accepted by the General Services Administration's Art-in-Architecture program.

According to Donald Thalacker, head of the program, "We get a lot of offers, but mostly from people who want tax deductions. We're interested in accepting worthwhile gifts, but this is the first time a really worthwhile offer has been made. It makes a sensational beginning."

The painting is a gift from the people of Detroit to the GSA's Patrick McNamara Federal Building.

Yesterday afternoon, in Gilliam's studio, there was a celebration to mark the departure of the $25,000 work.

"We felt we needed a giant painting in the entrance of that building because it's so gloomy," said Mrs. Alexander Walt of Detroit, who with architect Charles T. Harris and art patron Hawkins Ferry led the fund-raising effort. "We wanted Gilliam because he's stunning at what he does, and we thought he could light up the whole lobby."

"Make it bright enough so people will see it when they drive past the building," the fund-raisers told Gilliam. And he did.

Titled "Boxcars Grand," Gilliam's triptych consists of three stretched canvases, each 11 by 10 feet, dominated by swirls of red, blue, orange and gray to contrast with the gray granite walls of the lobby.

The painting was barely dry as preparations were made to rush it off to Detroit today for installation before the upcoming Republican convention. "We thought it would help, since the plaza looks so disreputable," said Walt, who added that the plaza is currently being rebuilt.

Money for the work came from individual gifts as well as from the Building Trades Union in honor of their late member and former senator, Patrick McNamara. Gilliam will also soon install another work in Detroit -- paid for by the Detroit Building Authority -- in the Detroit Receiving Hospital.