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Petaluma riverfront art proposal evokes strong feelings

Sometimes controversy can be a good thing.

That’s the approach San Francisco artist Brian Goggin is taking with the reaction to his proposal for a public art piece on Water Street titled “Fine Balance,” which features five walking bath tubs raised 17 feet high on angled, iron stilts. Each tub is connected to the poles by four Victorian-era ball and claw feet, a tribute to the tubs San Francisco traded with Petaluma in exchange for farm goods during the Gold Rush.

At night, solar-powered LED lights will be focused on the tubs to evoke a different emotion under the darker backdrop.

The proposal has elicited strong emotions on social media and in public meetings. A single post of the artist’s renderings has sparked an extensive debate on Nextdoor, the private social media platform for neighborhoods, as hundreds of comments flooded the site. The conversation was mixed and sometimes contentious, though the majority of responses were negative.

“This proposed artwork adds no aesthetic value and I believe would be a ridiculous piece that would degrade a rich historical area,” wrote one user.

“Our visitors come from all over the world. A hanging bathtub is not presenting Petaluma in its best light,” added another.

Many commenters offered suggestions of what to do instead, like artfully-crafted nesting areas for rat predators to double as a solution for the increasing number of riverfront rodents. Some thought the piece would be better suited at another location.

But Goggin is used to early opposition to his work, and he said many of the residents he’s spoken with admitted to a change of heart after hearing his concept and research process.

“A lot of art that is loved now was really questioned in the beginning,” he said in an interview last week. “I’ve put a lot of work into designing it and feel really strongly about it. But it’s good when art can create dialogue. It’s hard to get people to pay attention to cultural activities sometimes … so perhaps it’s helpful to have a little bit of controversy to enable people to take the time to consider it.”

The city hosted two public meetings at Aqus Cafe last week, and the tenor was much more civil than the discussion playing out on the Internet.

Many attendees expressed appreciation and respect for Goggin, who has sculpted noteworthy pieces throughout the country. His “Defenestration” installation of forgotten furniture hanging from an abandoned building in San Francisco, or the “Samson” pillars of luggage in the Sacramento International Airport are two of the more familiar projects in the region.

Resident Mark Malmberg was the first to comment at the meeting on May 1, and expressed confusion about the concept. He also asked the city’s public art committee to further contemplate what the waterfront really needed instead of commissioning art that might have less utility.

“It doesn’t connect for me,” he said to Goggin. “So while you have a lot of thought process behind it, I don’t get it from the piece. Secondly, I see the need we have — as far as you described — the need for us to be there and gather, but the piece strikes me as kind of threatening and towering and dangerous … Psychologically, it doesn’t seem friendly and inviting.”

Goggin was brought on to create Petaluma’s first piece of commissioned art last summer. The city selected him out of nearly 70 applicants for a $150,000 project, funded from fees charged to developers that elect to not add public art to their property.

That process came after a failed initial attempt the art committee launched in December 2014. The first call for artists culminated in four uninspiring proposals, so the city elected to restart the process a second time in October 2016.

Goggin was selected over David Best, a Petaluma resident and sculptor known for his wood sheet temples at Burning Man. However, Best received a contract from the city to create a subsequent public art piece.

After being selected, Goggin spent countless hours researching Petaluma. Early on he met with residents at the installation site to find out what was important to community members that wanted to be involved.

Much of the historical research was done under the stewardship of John FitzGerald, a longtime resident and river preservationist. Goggin became fascinated by the city’s relationship with ironfronts, a signature aesthetic in Petaluma’s architecture, and incorporated that into the sculpture’s materials.

“One thing that was striking to me as I was doing that initial research was noticing the relationship between Petaluma and San Francisco and the railroad I had initially been introduced to as important themes to explore in that space,” he said. “The river really is the heart and soul of the city, so I can understand why this is such an important space.”

The kinship between humans and water is a key element in the piece, Goggin said. He likens the flow of the river’s tide to the ability to fill and drain a bath tub. The balancing of the tubs is a physical expression of how Petaluma “navigates the path forward, while maintaining its treasured heritage, agricultural roots and eclecticism.”

For now, art committee chair Catherine Alden said they will be “reviewing various aspects of this concept, both technical and aesthetic” before their next meeting on May 24 at 6 p.m. at City Hall. The committee hasn’t determined a date for its final vote, but will be making its staff report on options for Goggin’s proposal available to the public prior to the next meeting.

“This is the committee’s first large-scale public art commission so we want to proceed as thoughtfully as possible,” Alden said.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)