LeBaron: Criticism and discord ‘part of the process' for public art in Sonoma County

The term “public art” might be considered an oxymoron. “Public” is a broad, all encompassing term, while “art” is a purely private matter, both in creation and appreciation. Reconciling the two can be a problem.

It is a subject that makes everyone an instant critic and can put the gentlest artist into a blind rage at a moment's notice.

This is an overstatement, of course, but the term has - and does - create a climate that heightens the probability of public discourse, to choose a polite term.

Most recently, it has been a Petaluma issue. An installation selected by an art committee and approved by the city council will bring five replicas of Victorian bathtubs mounted on poles roughly 25 feet high to a riverside site.

It's a done deal for San Francisco artist Brian Goggin. But it didn't come without its critics and discord - irate citizens speaking out of turn, interrupting, resorting to profanity and storming out of meetings. Polls taken by interested observers suggest that public opinion is evenly divided, perhaps tipping toward puzzlement.

You can say it is all “part of the process.”

That's what the artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and his late wife/partner, Jeanne-Claude, said about the 33 months of long and contentious hearings at many boards, commissions and agencies in two counties as the government tried to find reasons to stop their project.

The artists were a lesson in patience and civility and, while they engineered an illegal dip into the Pacific, Running Fence was as much a political as artistic triumph. In 1999 it was selected by the director of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art as the signature work of the nation's 20th century.

As much scoffing as took place at the initial responses to Christo's grandiose plan, it did have the advantage of NOT being public art. It was conceived, created and paid for by the artists themselves.

But, throw in public money - call it tax dollars if you prefer - and even Mona Lisa would have a fight on her hands.


Santa Rosa can be proud of its recent art history. The sheltering hand sculpture at the Santa Rosa Plaza, the many good works of SOFO artist Mario Uribe, the innovative use of old bicycles and discarded parking meters offer whimsy along with sculptural grace. Not that we all love everything. Nor can we point to a slate clean of controversy. But, believe me when I say the climate for artistic embellishment is much sunnier than it used to be.

Which makes this the proper moment to tell the story of two well-known and well-respected artists and their encounters with the Santa Rosa City Council of the 1980s.


Sonoma County artist Bruce Johnson, now internationally known for his large sculptures from rocks, redwood and other natural materials, was young, but his name was already familiar in bigger-city art projects when, in 1981, he won a competition to design an installation to crown the glory of the newly bifurcated Courthouse Square.

Funds were available from the Redevelopment Agency that was overseeing the downtown “overhaul” in the decades following the 1969 earthquake.

The agency had appointed a panel of eight - primarily artists and architects - to make the selection and award an $18,000 prize.

Johnson's design for a trio of massive stone sculptures was chosen over some 80 entries, including two other finalists with artistic ranking, Carroll Barnes and Roger Barr.

The City Council, which then was just five members, had the opportunity to approve the committee's unanimous choice and, well, you can guess. Two of the five joined the inevitable gathering of curbside critics.

One council member said it was “not representative of the city.” Another asked for a definition of “sculpture” and insisted on referring to it as “The Thing.” Another was uncertain, citing negative public comments. The mayor observed that warnings about artistic criticism dated to the ancient Greeks.

The vote was 3-2 in favor of rejecting the committee's recommendation. And Johnson's artistic vision for the plaza died.


Time passed. Repeated suggestions to restart the process from the Redevelopment Committee and pleas from every corner of the art community to find local art for the square fell on deaf ears.

By 1983, it had become apparent that the council had taken charge of the matter.

Johnson made periodic appearances before the council, continuing to plead his case and the Redevelopment Agency, left hanging, pondered what to do about the art-challenged west side of the square.

In the spring of '84, the Cultural Arts Council was offering to help choose appropriate art, but the then-mayor's response was something like “Thank you very much but we're working on something else.” The following week Ruth Asawa came to town.

The well-known San Francisco artist was acclaimed for her “Mermaid Fountain” in San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square and the intricate and whimsical fountain commissioned by the Grand Hyatt hotel on Union Square. For that one Asawa, always a teacher, had involved a hundred or more school children to make models in bread dough that would later be cast in bronze.

Asawa had been invited to come and look at Santa Rosa's fountain. Not surprisingly she saw it as a base to tell a story. She suggested sculpted panels, in bronze - or concrete if we couldn't afford bronze (and we couldn't) - calling up the story of Santa Rosa's history.

Interestingly, when a reporter apprised Asawa of the ongoing dispute over Johnson's discarded prizewinner and the many artists who were extremely critical of the council's rejection, Asawa did not hesitate. “They're right!” she said, clearly meaning that the council had been wrong.

For a time, as she negotiated, Asawa suggested she would wait for the Johnson matter to be settled before reaching any agreement. But it was soon to go beyond discussion. In September of '84 the council offered her the job and she indicated her intention to accept.

Two months later, Johnson sued the city of Santa Rosa, asking for his prize money.

Meanwhile, Asawa was hospitalized in midsummer of '85 and diagnosed with lupus, a damaging autoimmune disease she would live and work with for some 30 years.

By the spring of '86, she was back in her studio, at work on her Santa Rosa fountain. She met with local historians and elected officials to talk about events and people of Santa Rosa's past. And she became a familiar visitor to Luther Burbank Elementary School, as students shared ideas. Figures were created, using the bread dough technique she had perfected in SF, some by her “history committee” that was given a chance to become “artists-for-the-day,” the rest by the children.


This is a short version of a long story. But it offers an example of the yin and the yang of public art. Ruth Asawa's fountain was dedicated with much ceremony in February 1987. Santa Rosa paid her $100,00 for her artwork.

And, in June 1988, seven years after the council tossed his stone sculpture into a cocked hat, Bruce Johnson, who now had sculptures standing at attention in several large cities, including Chicago, won his court case and collected his $18,000 “prize” money.


Johnson, who still lives and works on the ridge above Timber Cove on the Sonoma Coast, was represented in the ‘80s court case by attorney Jerry Wilhelm, who had been mayor when the council rejection occurred.

Asawa died in 2013, regarded as one of the Bay Area's best-known and best-loved artists.

Since work to reunify Old Courthouse Square began, the Asawa panels have been kept at a fine art storage facility in the East Bay.

The master plan for the reunited square (slowed by the financial impact of the 2017 wildfires) calls for a placement on a new fountain created for just that purpose on the Third Street side of the square.

The preliminary estimate for construction and restoration of the art is $500,000, and city officials admit that the prospects are currently bleak.

The city manager, I am told, is seeking private donors.

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