Public art sparks a discussion

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Petaluma is getting a lesson in art criticism, and it seems that everyone is a critic.

In an era of so many divisive issues — immigration reform, gun control, abortion, to name a few — perhaps the biggest polarizing matter facing Petaluma is a Victorian-era bathtub. Petaluma is quickly becoming better know for our future stilted bathtub art installation than for butter, eggs or Lagunitas beer.

San Francisco-based artist Brian Goggin has not even installed his “Fine Balance” public art piece, featuring five replica bathtubs perched on metal poles above Water Street, and already passions are high. The controversy was even gawked at recently in the august Wall Street Journal (“What $150,000 Buys in California: Five Bathtubs Perched on Giant Stilts”), making Petaluma seem like a backwoods River City about to be swindled by the Music Man.

Depending on your stance, the art project represents either the end of life in Petaluma as we know it, or a boon to the tourism economy. In truth, it will probably be neither. The piece will be installed later this year over some vocal protestations, and then it will meld into the fabric of Petaluma, like the chicken mural, the ice cream cone and the oversized electric plug.

While it is easy to criticize the art, it is perhaps more useful to critique the process that spawned it. It’s been four years and counting since the Public Art Committee launched the effort to commission its first piece of public art using $150,000 in developer fees. (No tax dollars were harmed in the making of this art).

In fits and starts, the committee finally settled on Goggin, an accomplished artist with major works in San Francisco and the Sacramento airport. With so many talented Petaluma-based artists, many wondered why a local was not selected. The committee remedied this perceived slight by choosing Petaluman David Best for its second commission, which has so far garnered none of the controversy of the reviled tubs.

“Fine Balance” is a vision from the creative mind of Goggin alone. He did not seek public input, but art is not a collaborative process. Did Picasso ever survey a focus group to see if they preferred cubes to spheres?

Goggin said he was inspired by Petaluma’s history as a shipping center — wealthy early Petalumans imported claw-foot bathtubs, a luxury good, offloading them at the same spot on Water Street destined for the sculpture. Also, the tidally influenced Turning Basin, Goggin said, imitates a bathtub as it fills and drains. OK, sure. At least he has articulated his concept.

And while the piece is not a public collaboration, it has definitely been a public process. There has been ample opportunity for the public to weigh in at meetings, on social media, even at a preview event on Water Street.

Before the stilts are even in the ground, people already have strong opinions about the piece. Love it or hate it, the “tubs on stilts” certainly has sparked a conversation about aesthetics, taste and what it means to live in a community. And isn’t that the point of art?

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