Artwork coming to Water Street?

With a flush of funding and a city-approved master plan, Petaluma's Public Art Committee is exploring an opportunity to install communal artwork along a swath of the city's central waterway.

The committee held a public art forum last Saturday to help define what could be the city's first public arts project on the Petaluma River. The creative brainstorming session was inspired by installations in other towns — from grandiose gateways and murals, to sculptures that move with the wind or emerge only at low tide.

The committee also invited environmental artist Susan Leibovitz Steinman to showcase her city-centric works, including diverse apple tree plots, community gardens and recreational trails.

An assortment of ideas was suggested, such as doing a series of smaller works or creating a community space for events along the river. Other elements proposed included supporting local artists and creating partnerships with businesses along Water Street.

While many concepts were suggested during the forum, there is no specific idea or plan yet as to what the artwork will look like. Alison Marks, chair of the art committee, said elements the committee hopes to incorporate include the history of the site, a sense of place and time, a sense of generations, commerce, recreation and collaboration.

Before approaching the city council with a project proposal, the committee must create a project summary and description, establish a budget and deadlines, define the goals of their project and determine criteria for selecting artists' proposals.

If the council approves the project proposal, Marks said the committee will request creative proposals and open the project up to artists locally and possibly across the nation.

Susan Starbird, a Petaluma Waterways advocate present at the forum, said it's important for the committee to take into account "the importance of connecting the arts with the river environment" when requesting and reviewing artists' proposals.

She hopes artists will utilize "features that remind us that (the river) is a real legacy of this community."

Marks said the public art fund has been limited since the economy tanked in 2008. What little money did come in was used over the last five years to draw up a required Public Art Master Plan. Approved by the city council last fall, the master plan dictates how public art is funded, what constitutes art and where art can go. To generate funds for art, the city offers commercial developers a choice: install on-site art worth 1 percent of the project's total costs, or pay that same amount into the city's public art fund.

Until now, the public art fund has only been utilized once to purchase "Cherry Soda," a sculpture on the corner of C and Second streets in front of Boulevard Cinemas. The fund currently contains $300,000, mainly from fees paid by the developers of the Target shopping center on East Washington Street. Other developers, such as the soon-to-open Deer Creek Village shopping center, have chosen to select their own artwork, hiring an artist and team of consultants to ensure that certain criteria are met.

With the funds available, the committee members unanimously chose Water Street as the preferred site, due to its central location, historical significance and environmental assets.

"It's the heart of the city," Marks said. "This is where Petaluma began."

The proposed project area — which does not include the aging trestle — could include the stretch from the East Washington Bridge to the Balshaw Bridge, as well as a portion of Western Avenue from Water Street to Petaluma Boulevard North.

Marks said the pedestrian area is a blank canvas — one that will require careful thought and consideration when deciding how to best utilize the space.

"The groundwork has been laid, but we are still in the very beginning stages of this process," Marks said.

The public art committee will meet Thursday, April 24, at 7 p.m., and will be accepting further input from the public.

(Contact Allison Jarrell at allison.jarrell@arguscourier.com)