‘Public’ art ruled private

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It’s beautiful. It’s pricey. It’s locally themed. But the intricate art piece located in the showroom of the Hansel Auto Group’s newly remodeled Toyota dealership lacks one important feature, according to the Petaluma City Council: it’s not public.

The council last week voted to deny the company’s appeal, ruling to uphold an earlier committee vote that found the painting did not satisfy the public art requirement for large new development.

At issue was whether the indoor location provided sufficient public exposure and access to the installation. While the city’s public art requirement does not explicitly prohibit indoor art, the placement nonetheless formed the crux of a contentious debate that generated a split decision within the city’s public art committee even before it reached the city council.

Henry Hansel, a Petaluma resident whose family-owned company is in its fifth generation, said he acted in good faith when he commissioned the piece. The company president said he learned of the requirement late in the process, and went forward with the art before final concept approval out of concern that a delay in installing the piece could postpone the planned reopening of the facility.

“We felt strongly what we were doing was complying with the public art requirement,” he said.

City staff said that a hangup in the public art component would not have been a barrier to Hansel’s reoccupation of the completed space, and that they had informed the company of the art requirement early in the remodel proposal. Yet they also said they warned that the idea was unusual, and might not pass muster with the city’s public art committee, which reviews such projects.

“We clearly indicated that, while there’s nothing in the ordinance that prohibits installation indoors, we had never seen it before,” said Heather Hines, the city’s planning manager.

Permeating the discussion was a sense that the situation reflected a teachable moment for the city, prompting calls by the council for the public art committee to review the ordinance for ways to avoid similar instances in the future.

“It exposes an issue in our public art ordinance I think we need to work on,” said Councilman Mike Healy.

Created by Santa Rosa-based artist Chris Henry, the art in question involves three mixed-media paintings that incorporate various iconic buildings and symbols from Petaluma history. A report by city staff indicated the piece cost approximately $25,500 — a required expenditure equivalent to 1 percent of the total $2.5 million construction cost.

Hansel said he took a special interest in the project due to his family’s history in Petaluma, setting aside an option that allows businesses to pay into a fund earmarked for public art.

“I had no interest in paying the fee. I have lived and worked in this community for too long to not take a personal hand in this,” he said.

The company president said he specifically chose the indoor location due to the lack of outdoor space, which he said was dominated by cars, landscaping and asphalt.

“If I had an outside piece of art there, there would be very little public impact,” he said.

No council members directly refuted the principle of an indoor interpretation of the art requirement. Yet several spoke of the experience of visiting the piece, concluding that the sales-oriented hospitality of employees at the dealership was a significant barrier to public access.

“I get it — that’s the business model, and that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said of the customer service at the auto dealership. “But that’s not how you enjoy public art.”

There was no public art component included in the project proposal approved by the Petaluma Planning Commission in July of 2014, which entailed a conditional assumption that the Hansel Group would pay the fee instead, according to the staff report. Hansel later submitted an art proposal to the city in February 2015, according to the report.

The proposal was revised after the city deemed it incomplete, and went through two rounds with the public art committee before a split vote in April resulted in a de-facto denial. The art was nonetheless commissioned and installed, which Hansel said was out of concern that he would be unable to move his business out from a temporary tent and back into the building unless the art requirement was satisfied.

Petaluma Public Art Committee Chair Alison Marks, who described herself as among the architects of the current ordinance, defended the decision to deem the art as non-compliant.

“To approve this project sets a terrible precedent for Petaluma’s public arts program,” she said.

The council voted 5-2 in denying the appeal. Hansel said after the meeting that he was unsure of what he would do next.

“I’m not sure at this point what I’m going to do,” whether to pursue a new art project or pay the fee, he said. “The wording to me is very clear — we complied.”

The public art requirement applies to construction projects costing half a million dollars or more, according to the city.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. on Twitter @Eric_Reports.)

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