Community Matters: The art of acrimony in Petaluma

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When Petaluma adopted its public art ordinance in 2005, few could have predicted the extraordinary controversy that has arisen over “Fine Balance,” the proposed art project planned for the Water Street promenade consisting of five antique ball-and-claw foot Victorian-era replica bathtubs on tall iron stilts.

The city’s art ordinance made good sense when it was first proposed because of the twofold benefits of locating artwork where people could view it coupled with the economic benefits derived from such projects. Despite the recent brouhaha, public art is still an overall positive for Petaluma.

Funding for public art comes from a small fee on commercial developments. Builders are required to either pay into a municipal fund or commission their own art. Owners of the Deer Creek shopping center on McDowell Boulevard decided to add their own art, which resulted in several unique and interesting pieces adorning that public space.

Conversely, owners of the Target shopping Center chose to pay the fee, which generated the $150,000 being used by the Petaluma Public Art Committee that has worked for five years to commission the city’s first official public art project.

It’s been a trying experience for the volunteer members of the Art Committee. Their first attempt to find a suitable piece of art for the riverfront site in 2014 was a bust. Despite receiving dozens of renderings of proposed artwork, none were all that good.

The committee subsequently decided instead to select one well-qualified artist who, working in collaboration with the committee, would be charged with creating an iconic art project worthy of such a prominent public space. Renowned San Francisco artist Brian Goggin was ultimately selected in 2017 from a pool of 70 applicants.

Goggin subsequently held two well publicized public meetings to get input from the public, did extensive research at the city’s Historical Library and Museum and connected with local historian John FitzGerald on the history of the Petaluma River. He digested everything he learned and went to work.

But when Goggin’s proposal was first unveiled last spring, hundreds of Petalumans took to social media to register their discontent. Most disliked the overall concept and felt the art would degrade the city’s rich historical heritage. Some, including myself, felt it would be better suited at another location, such as Steamer Landing Park where the Rivertown Revival event is held.

Others were concerned about public safety hazards and potential vandalism. The Petaluma Chamber of Commerce and the Petaluma Valley Rotary Club, co-sponsors of the annual Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival fundraiser held annually on the site, expressed concerns that the artwork would negatively impact their ability to raise money for community programs and projects. (Full disclosure: I am a member of that Rotary club and remain cautiously optimistic that Goggin and site architect Chris Lynch will address our concerns.)

Last week I contacted Goggin to discuss his plans. He explained that he continues to make extensive revisions to the project in response to the myriad public concerns expressed regarding safety and access. His final iteration, expected by the end of this month, will reflect those changes.

As to the simmering controversy over the aesthetics of the art work itself, Goggin noted that he’s used the ball-and-claw foot bathtub motif in some of his previous art projects and sincerely believes that this particular antique home amenity has a place in Petaluma history. The stilts, he said, represent the precarious balance of the community’s rich agricultural heritage and the eclecticism and counterculture vibe that partly defines Petaluma today.

While a petition against the project continues to circulate and one opponent has even threatened a lawsuit, the very lengthy public approval process for the project is finally nearing completion. All public input, even the ugly personal attacks on the artist and members of the art committee, have been taken into account.

The City Council, understandably, is not eager to rehash the hours-long public hearing from last summer where the project’s fate was extensively debated, nor is there interest on the part of the art committee to spend additional years going over countless numbers of future designs, none of which is likely to earn unanimous public approval.

Could we have found a more popular art project for downtown? Probably.

But for now, it appears the community will just need to make the best of it and move on. There are certainly far more consequential civic issues — such as housing, traffic relief, road maintenance and homelessness — deserving of the robust public debate that has characterized this single piece of art.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com)

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