Bathtub art project faces another hurdle at upcoming Petaluma City Council meeting

The future of a controversial public art project will be in the hands of the Petaluma City Council on Monday, as the city’s elected leaders will again weigh in on the long-planned - and long-fought - project

If the Petaluma City Council votes to move forward, an environmental review would commence on the proposal, a group of five bathtub sculptures raised high on stilts along the city’s Water Street passageway.

The $150,000 project, named “Fine Balance” and designed by artist Brian Goggin, has been in discussion since December 2016, and has raised concerns based on its design, location and cost.

“My hope is that we make a responsible decision about the future of this project -taking into account community interests, the use of Water Street, the needs of the business community - and do right by all the different interests of the project,” Petaluma Vice Mayor Brian Barnacle said in a phone interview.

The Petaluma Public Art Committee in April approved an $80,000 environmental impact review in a tight, 4-3 vote, and the added cost could test the city council’s loyalty to the project, which council members reaffirmed in September 2019 when they rejected a resident-led appeal of the installation.

Should the environmental study go forward pending council approval, the total cost of the art piece would jump to at least $230,000, with city staff advising committee members the cost is likely to go up.

An Environmental Impact Report would take 10 months to complete, according to Oakland-based Lamphier-Gregory, the only firm to submit a proposal to perform the study. The report would factor in the project’s impacts on the downtown historic district, general aesthetics and scenic views.

Since renderings of the bathtubs went viral in 2018, residents have decried the project’s overall look, its location and its impact on popular downtown events. Restaurants and other businesses in the Water Street district have also raised concerns, and the Public Art Committee has operated under the standing threat of lawsuits.

Melissa Abercrombie, chair of the Public Art Committee, said that, while the committee is working to ensure that all residents feel heard, she hopes that everyone will come to the realization that the project is a work of artistic expression.

Bathtub art project faces another hurdle at upcoming Petaluma City Council meeting

“Ideally I’d like people to feel proud, and feel that they find representation and fun,” Abercrombie said. “I’m looking for a holistic approach that people can feel good about. We’re in times that are so turbulent, I’d rather focus on the good for a moment.”

Other have expressed fear that the art installation would tamper with the history of the district, prompting many to raise the specter of approving the piece at an alternative location.

But Mayor Teresa Barrett said that looking for a different home for the project would create further obstacles, as the project was designed specifically for the Water Street location. Barrett likened concerns with the aesthetics of art on water street to similar concerns about pandemic-era, make-shift outdoor dining spaces along the river.

“Do I want to see outdoor dining on Water Street? Absolutely,” Barrett said. “I want to see it in a way that serves Petaluma and serves the businesses, and is attractive. Having said that, it’s almost the same argument that people use who don’t want to see the art installation there.”

Barrett added that she hopes the future will allow the project to complement other new uses on Water Street, including outdoor dining.

For Barnacle, the ongoing debate is simply part of the process.

“This is exactly what public art is,” Barnacle said. “Whether you love it or you hate it, it’s supposed to capture your attention.”

The City Council is set to meet at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 13 via Zoom.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach her at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com.