The Petaluma Public Art Committee began to extinguish the fiery debate over the controversial Water Street public art project with a 6-1 vote at City Hall last Thursday, allowing renowned artist Brian Goggin to begin forming the final concept before city council approval later this year.
The May 24 meeting was the first time the art committee was able to publicly weigh in on his proposal, “Fine Balance,” featuring five Victorian-era bath tubs perched above the promenade on 17-feet-high iron stilts.
Despite the contentious discussion in community meetings and on social media, most of the seven appointed committee members were overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal.
“I don’t get contemporary art — I’m very much a traditionalist in this way — but I love the whimsy and the silliness of it because it doesn’t have to make sense or be logical to me,” said committee member Margaret Geiss-Mooney. “I love that it’s something that we see multiple times a day in a completely unexpected situation and location. You’re going to do a double take.”
The lone dissenting vote came from vice chair Christopher Smith. He gave significant consideration to the public’s critical response to the proposal that began pouring in once the renderings were shared on the website Nextdoor last month.
Smith said he failed to see a connection between the piece and the project site that would garner appreciation, and suggested different locations he felt were better suited for it rather than one of the most visible spots in Petaluma.
However, he championed Goggin as the right artist for this project, and expressed gratitude for the lengths he went to research Petaluma and its history.
“I like ‘Fine Balance’ as a public art piece, but I don’t love it – yet,” Smith said. “Maybe that’s just at this stage ... Could the artist create an alternative for this site? I’m confident he could. But I wonder why we would ask him to do that? If we ask him to do that perhaps because we’re seeking consensus, that’s going to lead to another request after that, and another request after that where we drive this artist away ... or (end up with) no public art at all.”
The council chambers were overflowing with attendants, many admitting it was their first time getting involved in a municipal process. Resident Sara Sass pointed out “it’s been a good civics lesson” for citizens unfamiliar with the development of city projects.
Nearly 30 community members took advantage of the public comment period, and almost half of them were in favor of Goggin’s piece, coloring a contrast to the widespread opposition percolating online.
“I think we haven’t been able to hear all the voices because many of them have been silenced in certain ways,” said Joshua Barlas, who expressed disappointment in some of the vitriol that’s been directed at Goggin.
Local artist Mark Pauline believes the installation represents the “weird side” of the city, which lives in harmony with the traditional culture sewn into its fabric – a relationship that defines Petaluma, he said.
“I think something like this, it touches surrealism. A little bit of that would be great for Petaluma because there’s a lot of tradition here. It’s everywhere in Petaluma,” Pauline said. “But I think a little touch of surreal would be good for this community, and the fact that this project has caused so much controversy is indicative of how many people are going to be drawn to Petaluma to view this piece.”