Petaluma’s Public Art Committee approves $80,000 environmental study for controversial bathtub art project

Hobbled by years of controversy, delays and growing costs, Petaluma’s Public Art Committee this week narrowly reaffirmed its commitment to an art piece featuring sculpted bathtubs on stilts destined for downtown’s Water Street.

Now facing an environmental review process and legal threats by a group of vigorously opposed residents, A Fine Balance by San Francisco artist Brian Goggin is on the cusp of a new stage in what has been a controversial and protracted public art effort that could cost more than $230,000.

The seven-member public art committee, comprised of local artists and art advocates, voted 4-3 last week to stick with the embattled art installation after postponing deliberations last fall, the close and impassioned vote reflecting a similar stubborn divide among Petaluma residents.

“I’m going to support art. I’m going to support this,” said committee member Katherine Plank shortly before the vote. “And I’m going to say, we can find a way to pay for this. Let’s not bow to this public pressure of lawsuits and small-mindedness. We can find a way to do it.”

The vote acts as an official recommendation that city council authorize the nearly $80,000 environmental review contract required for the original project design and location to go forward, and as a signal that the Public Art Committee is not yet prepared to throw in the towel despite years of setbacks.

Following the Public Art Committee’s 2014 decision to prioritize the plaza near the Water Street bridge as an ideal place for public art, the city launched an exhaustive search for an artist. After reviewing multiple applications over the course of a year, the all-volunteer art committee chose Goggin to create Petaluma’s first commissioned public art piece. The city and Goggin entered into a contract August 2017, and the art committee approved his draft concept design of the bathtubs six months later, in early 2018.

The $150,000 contracted piece is to feature five sculpted clawfoot bathtubs suspended on stilts along the promenade between East Washington Street and the Balshaw Bridge. Goggin has said the tubs could have been delivered to wealthy Petaluma merchants at the Water Street location in the past, and has said the tubs also reflect the nearby Turning Basin.

But the location and artistic concept drew heated public ire, and in March 2019, a group of Petaluma residents filed two appeals challenging the original project approval.

Petaluma’s Public Art Committee approves ,000 environmental study for controversial bathtub art project

The Petaluma City Council rejected the resident-led appealSept. 16, 2019, but the council did agree to make the piece a temporary installation subject to a reevaluation after 10 years.The following month, Planning Manger Heather Hines told the council that the city would now require an environmental impact review of the piece to avoid litigation – a move that some opponents of the project applauded, hopeful it would scuttle the piece altogether.

Committee member Melissa Abercrombie Thursday night criticized the tenor of the yearslong pushback the project has received, recalling packed meetings, angry emails and some rude comments directed at the artist and the piece.

“I’ve been disappointed with the sentiments I’ve heard from our community,” she said. “It’s been really hard to attend meetings and see people less than civil, I’ve had to point that out at meetings when people heckled next to me. I saw a lot of ugliness that I had never seen.”

Unlike prior meetings about the project that attracted dozens of residents, Thursday’s virtual gathering struck a more sobered tone, with two residents during a public comment period challenging the project and urging the committee to scrap it entirely. Another nine people wrote letters expressing the same sentiment.

“I strongly believe our magnificent municipal riverside in the historic district is not the correct place for A Fine Balance,” resident Cheryl Coldiron said at the meeting.

Some detractors have also pointed to the transformation of Water Street during the coronavirus pandemic as a cause for concern. The area currently hosts hundreds of outdoor dining seats. They say the bathtub art and the dining scene can’t coexist, but artist Goggin submitted a statement saying otherwise.

“The sculpture is compatible with the restaurant seating and current uses,” Goggin said in his April 21 written public comment. “Tables may be set up on top of or to the side of the sculpture platforms. The artworks will act as a draw to customers and be a point of interest whilst folks are dining. I hope you consider moving ahead with the EIR (environmental impact report).”

Since renderings of the bathtubs went viral in 2018, residents have taken to social media in huge numbers, many decrying the project, with reasons for their extreme dislike ranging from the aesthetic concept to the location on Water Street next to the Petaluma River.