Petaluma’s bathtub art project elicits strong emotions

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Brian Goggin raised a bathtub high overhead and began marching it along the Water Street promenade.

Only this tub was made of a heavy cloth, held together by four pliant poles that eventually succumbed to the stress from carrying a mockup of Petaluma’s controversial first piece of commissioned public art, “Fine Balance.”

The San Francisco sculptor on Saturday hosted the highly-anticipated “story pole event” at the site of his forthcoming installation for downtown Petaluma. It was the first opportunity for supporters and opponents to get a glimpse of how his piece – featuring five Victorian ball-and-claw bathtubs on stilts – might look along the cherished riverfront.

As Goggin and his small team of volunteers took their first steps toward the site of the southernmost tub, which will be visible from the intersection of Petaluma Boulevard and Western Avenue, several protesters voiced their outrage at a project that has been a lightning rod for civic debate over the past year.

“Are you calling our city a toilet?” shouted one bystander. “Is that the best you can do?”

More than 100 curious citizens, elected officials and supporting artists from across the region attended Saturday’s outreach event. The Petaluma Public Art Committee added it to the approval process to try and appease many of the concerns that have been raised since the proposal went viral last April.

Goggin’s mother, Jill Quick, served tea on an old dresser beside a scaled-down replica of the final sculpture. A local piano player also provided background music throughout the afternoon.

For more than two hours, the lone mockup was hoisted up and taken down at the approximate site for each tub, with pole lengths and their proposed angles matching up to the current designs. Captivated attendees took photographs and videos, and walked along the street to get a sense of the piece’s presence from different vantage points.

Some clapped in approval while others cursed under their breath.

Longtime residents and opponents of the piece Kathleen Hanna and Anthony Clark said they were protesting an art installation that they believed had no connection to the site and emerged from a flawed selection process.

“This place is the soul of Petaluma,” Hanna said. “Everything happened right here … everything went through here. It’s the heart and soul of this town.”

Robust discussions on social media sites have been overwhelmingly in opposition to the proposal. Many commenters have expressed dismay at city officials that have allowed the process to continue despite the vitriolic sentiments online. Many of those opinions were left in the PPAC’s overflowing comment box on Saturday.

“I know that they’ve been very vocal in the past, and I anticipated that they might come,” Goggin said of the opposition. “I hope that they were open to looking at it a little fresh because I’m always open to starting fresh with them. I’m interested in their perspective. It’s just helpful if we can have civil dialogue rather than just shouting at each other.”

Catherine Goerz, a Berkeley resident and Bay Area artist, came to support Goggin. She said she was sympathetic to the concerns residents had for the sculpture, but asked opponents to give it a chance.

“Get to know Brian and look at his other work,” Goerz said. “Investigate what this installation might mean for you. Keep an open mind, and make up your own meaning. Just stay open to the fact that art doesn’t make sense on the surface. It requires some contemplation, and that’s what he’s doing.”

PPAC chair Beverly Schor said the high turnout was exactly the kind of interest the committee was hoping to establish at the waterfront site.

“I was blown away,” she said. “I’ve only seen drawings, and you don’t have a sense of the scale. … With the buildings, it almost seemed like (the bathtubs) took flight. They had this light, airy feeling as opposed to people feeling that it was going to block views, or too many sticks in your face. You just didn’t have any of that.”

Goggin said he is “very close” to completing his final concept and submitting it to the city for one last review. He is currently networking with several local businesses to help pump as much of the $150,000 budget back into Petaluma, he said.

Pending one last PPAC approval of the final concept, city officials are optimistic the project will be completed before the end of the year.

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

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