In undisturbed isolation, the potter arranged six newly fired platters on the weathered picnic table outside his studio at Glen Echo Park. It was a perfect, Kodacolor spring Friday, with only the sounds of birds, the wind in the leaves and the distant whine of National Airport-bound jets above the Potomac River.

Forty-eight hours later, the park was alive with the noise of families enjoying another spring day. Children shouted in excitement from their perches on the park's antique carousel, whose tunes evoke thoughts of state fairs and old-fashioned amusements.

Such are two of the faces of this National Park Service arts center, which settled in the early 1970s into the run-down remains of the old Glen Echo Amusement Park on MacArthur Boulevard, several miles northwest of the District line.

Art deco structures left from rides such as the swirling "Cuddle Up" and the bumper cars are still there, as is the Chautauqua Stone Tower, left from the park's Chautauqua circuit days in the late 1800s and now used as an art gallery.

There are newer fixtures: six wood and grass yurts, Mongolian huts that were erected for a Smithsonian exhibit but now are used as artists' studios.

About 50 photographers, weavers, potters, woodworkers, artists and performers who teach and work at the park share utility bills with the park service but pay no rent.

As a park, "It does have sort of a schizophrenic personality," said Dwain Winters, a resident of the neighboring town of Glen Echo. Winters said there are "those spring mornings during the week when it's all quiet and the artists are working.

But then, "on weekends or at one of the festival times . . . this place is just wave after wave of people," said Winters, who is also president of the 3,000-member Folklore Society of Washington, which will draw its own share of crowds to the park May 31 and June 1 when it hosts its annual folklore festival.

But Glen Echo's days as an arts colony may be numbered.

The National Park Service, which took over the property in 1971, is searching for a private developer or nonprofit organization to lease and renovate it. It is part of a nationwide effort by the park service, spurred by recent federal budget cuts, to lease parks to private groups.

Most of the activities at Glen Echo, such as the Adventure Theater for children and weekend dances at the old Spanish Ballroom, are privately funded.

Under recently mandated budget cuts, however, the park service must cut its construction expenditures by more than 10 percent. Glen Echo costs about $210,000 a year to operate, and millions of dollars are needed to restore about a dozen buildings, making the outlook for continued federal management bleak, officials said.

The artists are not happy at the news, and neither are some of their supporters, who have posted petitions in local stores protesting the plans. A series of meetings between community representatives, artists and park officials has begun.

"This environment . . . has been an exceptional place to work," said potter Jeff Kirk, 38, who has taught at the park since 1973. "It's low key.

"It does get very active on weekends and in the summer months from May through September, and that's kind of a nice change from the quiet tranquility of the winter months," he said, arranging his terra cotta plates in the sun on the table.

"That's the big fear, that a developer will come in here, [and] once they get their foot in the door, they could change the ambiance and character of the park," Kirk said, echoing the view held by several artists who perform or work at the park.

"It's one of the few places left in Washington that has that timeless quality, and once it's lost there's no going back," Kirk said.

Inside one of the yurts, Betsey Shulman, 29, sat sculpting a towering piece. Smiling, she described the work as "pre-Columbian, postmodern."

Her clay sculptures are being shown downtown at the Zenith Gallery, she said.

"I have a studio downtown, but I come here because it's such a pleasure to work out here" with a "community of people working toward the same goal," she said. "A lot of people come here because of the social aspect -- there are a lot of women and men who have been coming here for years and years."

The low cost of working at the park is crucial because the starving artist is more reality than stereotype, said Shulman, who does secretarial work and works as a waitress to supplement the income from her sculpture. "There are so many people who are professional artists; there are just very few who can make a living at it," she said.

Another Glen Echo loyalist is Christopher Piper, who quit his lucrative, fast-paced job as an advertising executive to become a second-generation puppet master. Piper was busy the other day painting a marionette for an upcoming production about Glen Echo called "Wow! What a Place!"

Four years ago, Piper, 34, founded The Puppet Company in a yurt with Allan Stevens, 43, whom he met while making puppets for the park's Adventure Theater, which produces plays for children.

"We don't think puppet theater should be all loud music and bright colors," said Stevens, a tall man with a shaggy beard and a quick smile. "We use our art and our craft toward communicating what we feel are great ideas in literature, and making it fun at the same time."

The spring sun shone through the skylight capping the yurt as the two men shaped puppets and talked about the future of the park. Their big blond cat, Kitty, snoozed on an open Yellow Pages directory.

"Maybe it's time to move on," Piper continued, pausing to wipe his paint-stained hands on an apron. "I can't fault the park service for not having money -- the taxpayers made that decision. It's real easy for me to say the park should stay as it is because I'm benefiting from it.

"But if the community wants it here, they're going to have to come together and fight for the park. If they don't, somebody else is going to make the decision for them."