Petaluma public art stirs controversy

A lengthy quest to install Petaluma's first piece of commissioned public art has sparked a fiery debate over a sculpture slated for a prominent waterfront location.

A petition to thwart the Water Street placement of “Fine Balance,” a collection of five bathtubs atop thin stilts, gained more than 1,500 signatures while a GoFundMe account to support an opposition campaign has raised more than $3,000. Supporters say the piece is created by an esteemed artist and will be a unique draw that showcases the city's eclectic nature.

“It's dividing friendships, all kinds of things,” said Petaluma Public Art Committee member Katherine Plank, who sits on the subcommittee that selected San Francisco artist Brain Goggin. “It's hard to believe. It's just art.”

The next step is a November installation of temporary poles to illustrate the project's appearance. 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.

“If you look at the history of public art, it's always like that. People hated the Statue of Liberty … they hated the Eiffel Tower. It's just one thing after another … almost anything new that brings in a big change, the public is against,” said Plank, who voted to approve the project. “If you say that out loud, people say you're an art snob.”

Mayor David Glass and Vice Mayor Mike Healy, two City Council veterans, said while the debate is heated, it doesn't rise to the level of other contentious issues, like the Dutra asphalt plant and public access to Lafferty Ranch.

“This is kind of a soup of the day feel - it's a big for a moment ... it may be one of those issues that at the end neither side is happy with,” Glass said.

Scott Andrews, a Petaluma engineering consultant who became a de facto leader of a vocal opposition, said “many people” think the piece is “bad public art.” Some have likened it to creatures from “Star Wars,” said Andrews, who “tolerates” the piece but is opposed to its placement on Water Street.

“People mostly just feel bathtubs don't have any meaning in connection to Petaluma, and it's overbearing and way too big for the location,” he said, describing the area as a gathering place. “A bunch of people feel that location is a very special place.”

The art could displace 12 of 36 booths at the annual Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival, an effort of the Petaluma Valley Rotary Club and the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce that draws about 1,500 people each year, co-chair and Rotarian Libby FitzGerald said. The event, which raises about $50,000 annually, is the club's largest fundraiser. Funds split between the club and chamber are used for community projects and seminars, she said.

“It's either going to drastically reduce the size of the event, which would probably kill it, or we'd move it to another location, which would probably kill it,” she said.

The artwork, which will be between 17 and 23 feet tall, is a result of a tumultuous, nearly four-year process to commission a $150,000 piece using development fees earmarked for public art. The search, which began in late 2014, is led by the city's public art committee.

The commissioned piece is the first for the committee, which was created by a 2005 ordinance, Public Art Liaison Annee Knight said.

After an initial search yielded lackluster results - including a large floating statue of legs - the committee revised its commission process in a bid to include more community collaboration. A call for qualifications was once again issued in 2016.

Goggin, who has been commissioned for more than a dozen works of art across the country, was chosen from a pool of 65 submissions. Considering input from two community meetings last fall, he created “Fine Balance,” a piece he says pays homage to Petaluma's history. In addition to other goods, claw and ball bathtubs were received on the Petaluma River during the gold rush.

“I'm hoping people have a chance to feel this kind of vital life energy and creative effervesce when they look at the piece,” Goggin said.

A slew of comments from Andrews and others elevated the discussion to the city council, a deviation from the planned process. The council ultimately directed city staff to continue with the commission, though Mayor Glass said the council still has the ability to intervene. Council members also asked for a provision to the contract allowing the art to be moved in the future, but no alternate location has been identified, Knight said.

Andrews raised concerns over safety, arguing, among other things, the angled poles could pose as an obstacle for people, including those with disabilities, navigating the walkway, potentially violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While Goggin, the art liaison and art committee members contend any potential nonconformity with ADA guidelines will be resolved before installation, Andrews said he's considering using some of the money raised on GoFundMe to fund an “ADA-style lawsuit.”

“I'll be fighting this for 10 years if I have to,” he said about the art project.

Others, like Petaluma artist Amy Critchett, the executive producer of the Bay Bridge lights, support the project.

“It's perfectly surreal and weird and wonderful,” Critchett said.

Critchett, who described herself as a friend and a fan of Goggin, said those opposed have a “not in my backyard” mentality. As a creator of public art, she said opinions can differ.

“It can be polarizing,” she said. “But certainly, I am pretty amazed at how polarizing ‘Fine Balance' has become in Petaluma.”

A May post on social media site “Nextdoor” has more than 1,600 responses and is just one active thread for debate. Commenters called the piece “hideous,” “ridiculous” and “tacky,” with many sparring over its merits.

Goggin said while criticism of art isn't unusual, social media has allowed unsavory rhetoric to metastasize. Goggin said he and an assistant monitor comments, considering practical criticism.

Andrews lambasted the process for approving the art, saying the art committee is “actively seeking” to avoid public involvement.

Plank said the process included stakeholders, advertisements of meetings and opportunity for public comment.

About 40 people attended meetings at Water Street to shape the concept, Plank said. Nearly 100 comment cards were submitted at two meetings at Aqus Cafe, where the design was unveiled, and the project has been discussed at committee meetings, Plank said.

Still, Plank and Chairwoman Catherine Alden said they'd like to invite more engagement from artists and community members on future projects.

The process to recruit artists is handled on a case-by-case basis, Knight said. There are no plans to change the ordinance that governs the committee and provides it with autonomy, Planning Manager Heather Hines said.

“This is our first shot at (commissioning an artist) and we're really refining it and talking about it amongst ourselves,” Alden said.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214.

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