A controversial public art installation on Water Street scored a major victory Monday night when Petaluma City Council decided not to terminate the contract with the artist despite the raucous debate that’s unfolded since the proposal was revealed earlier this year.
It was the first time the “Fine Balance” project by San Francisco-based artist Brian Goggin, which features five Victorian-era bathtubs suspended above the promenade on 17-foot-high iron stilts, had been weighed publicly by elected officials since renderings of the sculpture went viral in April.
After two hours of discussion that included almost 40 public comments, in front of an audience that spilled out of the council chambers and into the hallway at City Hall, the council opted to allow the process to continue — at least for now.
If the city decides to change course before construction of Petaluma’s first piece of commissioned art has been completed, a 10-day clause in the contract gives the council the power to terminate the agreement and pay the artist for his work up to that point.
Public opposition for the $150,000 project, which is funded by fees from developers, has been fierce over the past few months, marked by bottomless discussion threads on social media. The criticisms of the piece have been just as broad — from the significance of bathtubs to the project’s obstruction of the revered site to safety concerns and its potential for attracting miscreants.
Council members did their best to abstain from critiquing the art itself, although a majority of them indicated they were in favor of it. Instead, they focused more on the merits of the ordinances that paved the way for public art projects, and the precedent that might be set if they overturned a decision by an appointed body like the Petaluma Public Art Committee, which approved the project with a 6-1 vote on May 24.
“I have a hard time, when we ask these staffs that are volunteers and members of the community and put this time in and they solicit input and they come up with a product, and we totally undercut what they’re doing,” Councilman Gabe Kearney said.
Several residents said they supported the process but preferred to put Goggin’s piece somewhere else. Councilman Chris Albertson, who objected to the bathtub concept entirely, and Councilman Mike Healy agreed that it would be more appropriate at a different location.
“The graphics that the city manager circulated today really caught my attention by the amount of space this chews up,” Healy said. “I do think it would make it unusable for a lot of events.”
But the council members that were in favor of the installation objected to another site because the municipal process that began four years ago and encompassed two separate searches was designed specifically for the Water Street promenade.
“The location is what has driven this entire process,” said Councilwoman Teresa Barrett. “That is the point I’ve been trying to make to a lot of people who have contacted me through this. Moving it somewhere else, it’s just not the purpose of this request for qualifications.”
The 36 public comments were almost a perfect split of those against and those for the project, highlighting the lack of consensus within the community. The makeup of each camp was diverse, debunking the notion that it’s a battle pitting young versus old or new resident versus multi-generational.