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Mockup of bathtub art project planned for Water Street

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The Petaluma Public Art Committee, meeting for the first time in two months last week, fully expected to face the uproar that has gripped the discussion of the Water Street public art installation since April.

Instead the PPAC got something more akin to its meetings before renderings of bathtubs on stilts in the city’s first piece of commissioned art went viral on social media. Despite all the negative rhetoric that has engrossed Petalumans online, a mere seven people turned out to the Train Depot last Thursday for the committee’s first gathering since May 26, when the seven appointed members approved San Francisco artist Brian Goggin’s “Fine Balance” concept with a 6-1 vote.

The piece features five Victorian bathtubs suspended above the promenade, each equipped with four angled poles 17 feet high. Based on the renderings, it will also be illuminated at night.

The PPAC has often been the target of the public’s disdain for the project, which scored a major victory on July 16 when city council chose to allow the process to continue rather than terminate Goggin’s contract. Emotions have been so high that committee member Caroline Hall said she had even received a threatening text message from an unknown number.

But, when given a chance to further scorn the alleged agents of Petaluma’s demise, the community was absent. The board heard just two comments before discussing the next stages of the project.

The PPAC tasked a subcommittee – made up of Hall, Heather Mackin and Katherine Plank – to begin planning for a so-called story pole fitting later this summer, allowing residents a chance to interact with a series of replicas on the promenade and get a real sense of how the sculpture might affect the space.

“I don’t think any of us know how it’s going to turn out,” said vice chair Christopher Smith, who submitted the lone dissenting vote against the proposal in May. “The thing is, there’s been so much discussion about it now because of a few preliminary renderings, that people seem to have become absolutists – supporters and opponents of the project. I think that’s closed a lot of minds.

“I’m not here to lobby for it. I don’t think that’s my job. But what I’d like to do is lobby for open minds as we move ahead.”

The story poles will likely go up after the Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival, which is held Sept. 15 along the esplanade. The committee plans to incorporate a way to provide written feedback, and hold the event during non-work hours as well as at least one day on a weekend.

After public comment, the committee members also addressed many of the questions that have been raised by the community over the last few months.

Multiple members spoke to the alleged lack of public involvement. Before Goggin began forming his concept, the PPAC advertised two public meetings at the project site in local news outlets, various city websites and on social media. There were also two meetings with the selection panel that was comprised of eight community members and three representatives from the PPAC.

Goggin later presented his concept at a PPAC meeting, which no one from the public attended, committee member Beverly Schor said. The first time Petalumans finally got involved were at two separate assemblies at Aqus Cafe during the last week of April once his rendering had been widely shared on Nextdoor and Facebook.

Visibly frustrated, Mackin said she was surprised by how little the public wanted to be part of the project after Goggin signed his contract with the city in August 2017.

“We invited the community,” she said. “We posted those meetings. We advertised those meetings, and no one came. That was really disappointing. I remember those meetings being out on Water Street, and I was shocked that there was maybe 10 people there.”

Schor said Goggin’s proposal was never given a proper introduction, either. The renderings had been photographed and posted on social media without any input from the artist, leaving the PPAC on the defensive.

“His piece was put on Facebook without an opportunity for him to explain,” Schor said. “It was a concept – a preliminary concept. It was never to be presented as a final concept and, because of the Internet, it missed that opportunity to present it to the public. That’s why we are where we are today.”

Many of the public’s apprehensions about the tubs draining or birds nesting, and the potential for climbing, for vandalism, for being targeted with trash, were brought up by Margaret Geiss-Mooney months before Goggin’s sculpture was public.

“From the get-go, he has already addressed a lot of my conservation and maintenance and safety concerns with just a preliminary concept,” she said. “So I’m sure he will be able to answer our questions and the public’s questions about those issues when he does get to the final concept stage.”

In addition to the Water Street project, the PPAC also discussed the early stages of its next piece with Petaluma artist David Best, who was promised a $75,000 contract after losing the initial bid to Goggin. City liaison Annee Booker-Knight said the selection panel votes were tied when their second search, which began in October 2016, was down to two finalists, so the group decided to commission both sculptors.

Known for his wood sheet temples at Burning Man, Best will be crafting a piece for the Lynch Creek Trail, just below the Lakeville Street intersection where the trail bends south toward the historic Dairyman’s Feed.

A subcommittee of outgoing chair Catherine Alden, Geiss-Mooney and Schor will oversee the project. At the meeting, city staff was advised to begin writing a contract, and the subcommittee targeted a date toward the end of August to meet with Best and work through his ideas for the space.

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