The Raku art gallery at 310 Seventh St. NW, which had become a popular showcase for the work of minority artists since it opened in 1980, was destroyed by a two-alarm fire yesterday that D.C. fire officials termed an apparent arson.

"It hurts all of us because we are in the business of exposing the work of African and African-American artists," said Vernard Gray, publisher of Black Arts Review, a local arts quarterly.

"Those of us who work in the field know the difficulties you encounter running a gallery and building an institution," said Gray, who directs the Miya Gallery at 420 Seventh St. NW. Gray said his gallery and Raku are two of only a small number of black-owned galleries in the city.

D.C. fire officials said they answered a call about 11 p.m. Thursday that smoke was coming from the one-story brick building that housed exhibition space, a pottery kiln and basement workshops. Firefighters extinguished the blaze, which caused only minor damage. But they responded to another alarm at the gallery shortly after midnight, said D.C. Fire Chief T.R. Coleman.

Many items, which included an exhibit of Nigerian works, were apparently saved because, a spokesman for the gallery said, they had been removed after the first fire.

"It is apparently arson," Coleman said, adding that the first units at the scene reported several separate blazes in the building, whose exposed southern wall is distinguished by a brightly painted facade of arches and columns.

For more than two hours, about 85 firefighters poured water onto the building's collapsed roof. Coleman said the fire was too intense for firefighters to enter the building with hand-held hoses. No one was hurt.

Mildred Bautista, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and cultural adviser to Mayor Marion Barry, said the loss of the gallery was a blow to efforts by the city to build up the Seventh Street arts corridor. She said the mayor and the commission were interested in helping Raku reopen, but said she was not sure whether money would be available.