PD Editorial: Public input as performance art in Petaluma

In Petaluma, artistic expression seemingly trumps public dialogue.

If there's going to be public input about a controversial public art project, public officials ought to wait until after they hear it to make a decision. The whole point of letting people weigh in is to allow for the possibility that additional perspective might influence the outcome.

Apparently that's not how it works with the Petaluma Public Arts Committee, which has decided to move forward with a controversial art installation, at least according to committee member Katherine Plank. All of the upcoming public process, then, is just so much performance art.

The project in question will feature claw-foot bathtubs on stilts above Water Street. The location along the river is a popular outdoor space with both locals and tourists.

We confess that we have a hard time appreciating the artistry of bathtubs on stilts, but then we're not art critics. What we do know is that art that doesn't annoy someone is usually bland art. Artistic works should challenge the people who encounter them to think and view the world differently. Pleasing aesthetics help, too.

The bathtubs are the vision of an esteemed San Francisco artist who has placed outdoor projects across the country. We trust the experts that it's good art.

But some Petaluma residents vehemently disagree. They say it doesn't fit the character of the community nor the waterfront site. There's even fundraising underway for a legal challenge.

Other Petaluma residents love the project and think it will be a whimsical draw. It's telling that in written comments on the proposal in the spring, the vast majority of people scored it either 1, 2, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale.

Such disputes are not unusual when it comes to questions of taste. Santa Rosa residents no doubt recall similar griping about sculptures made of old bicycle frames and discarded parking meters.

A secondary issue around this installation is its impact on waterfront events, particularly the popular annual Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival. The bathtubs could displace one-third of the 36 booths at the event. That, in turn, could cut into the event's fundraising for the Petaluma Valley Rotary Club. At a minimum, the art should be installed with an eye for potentially relocating it if it becomes too disruptive, something that the arts committee and the artist have discussed already.

The arts committee also is working with the artist on renderings and installing temporary stilts at the site to give people a better sense of the project's scale. Then there will be more opportunity for public input.

If Plank is honest and correct, that public input doesn't matter. The Press Democrat's Hannah Beausang reported last week, “After residents weigh in, the public art committee will vote on the final design, but the majority of its members plan to move forward with the project's installation by next August, Plank said.”

The committee was appointed to deal with public art, and the decision ultimately sits with it. But its members should respectfully consider public feedback after the demonstration, not go into it with their minds already made up. Anything less reduces residents to unwilling participants in performance art.

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