Public Art Sparks National Controversy

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Public Art Sparks National Controversy

The public gathered on Water Street to watch Goggin set up a model of what his piece will look like.

The public gathered on Water Street to watch Goggin set up a model of what his piece will look like.

Andrew Gotshall

The public gathered on Water Street to watch Goggin set up a model of what his piece will look like.

Andrew Gotshall

Andrew Gotshall

The public gathered on Water Street to watch Goggin set up a model of what his piece will look like.

By Grace Yarrow, Casa Grande High School

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In 2005, the Petaluma Public Art Ordinance organized a “master plan” to implement a public art program in Petaluma. 14 years, $150,000, and one Wall Street Journal article later, Petaluma has received national attention for an art project involving five bathtubs on 17 to 23-foot poles. On March 14, the project was appealed by multiple Petaluma citizens; thus, the city has instructed any work to halt.

San Francisco’s Brian Goggin was set to install and unveil his whimsical piece of public art by October of 2019 — or whenever permits for installment are granted. Goggin’s work was commissioned by the Petaluma Public Art Committee (PPAC), the group of seven representatives serving staggered terms on the committee. His proposal was selected from a group of 60 other artists in January 2017.


Photo by Andrew Gotshall
Brian Goggin shows a mock-up of “Fine Balance” in January of 2019.

The project, entitled “Fine Balance,” is aptly named: Victorian bathtubs will be balanced upon iron stilts on downtown Petaluma’s Water Street. Goggin’s public statement on his website asserts that the inspiration is drawn from Petaluma’s history as a shipping hub, trading goods with San Francisco; more specifically, trading produce and poultry for clawfoot bathtubs. Although public art in Petaluma has often been connected to the local poultry and dairy industries, this piece addresses a frequently forgotten aspect of those industries. Throughout time, the riverfront location of Petaluma has made it very appealing for tourists and trading — and much of it survived a 1906 earthquake in Sonoma and Marin counties, meaning downtown Petaluma serves often as a time capsule of what life was like in the 19th century.

“Many claw and ball tubs procured from this trade activity are still in use at many local residences,” Goggin’s statement says. This style of surrealism is typical for Goggin: he has worked with furniture as a part of a structure that behaves in a bizarre way or seems to have come to life in his history with public art pieces. For example, in his piece “Defenestration” (meaning to throw something out of a window), chairs, couches, and tables are attached to the outside of an abandoned, four-story apartment building in San Francisco. The same animated, lively approach is reflected in “Fine Balance.”

In January, Goggin and the PPAC conducted what they called a “story pole event.” Goggin set up a mock-up of what the piece would look like when completed. Since this event and Goggin’s public meetings describing his motivations and inspiration for creating the piece, “Fine Balance” has received many strong reactions.

The Resistance

The 1,119 people who have banded against Goggin’s work refer to themselves as “Citizens Against Bathtubs on Stilts on Water Street” on a public Facebook page. Scott Andrews started this page after he observed a lot of interactions on social media and on Nextdoor, a social network for communities and neighborhoods that exhibited negative feedback toward Goggin’s piece and the PPAC.

“Public art is something that should serve the public and should provide the public with, you know, a sense of place,” said Andrews. “And most people that I’ve talked to, many artists included, don’t really feel that that piece is appropriate in that location. So there’s been a pretty good discussion about that. And I think most of us have gotten clearer about kind of what we want in public art.”

Photo by Andrew Gotshall
Artist Brian Goggin holds up a pole supporting one of the five Victorian bathtubs.

There are, of course, many aspects of the project for consideration. There have been reactions based on different parts of the installation, including location, aesthetics, the process of choosing Goggin by the PPAC, and the response from the PPAC after feedback came in from the public.

Petaluma mayor Teresa Barrett supports the PPAC’s process. The seven members of the PPAC are appointed by the City Council and serve staggered four-year terms. Barrett believes that projects like this are significant to the community and Petaluma as a whole.

“I just think public art is like a public park. It’s just another indication of a community that wants to have things in it that are a pleasant experience for the residents and visitors,” said Barrett. Because art is supposed to make an onlooker ‘think about things in a different way,’ Goggin’s work has been successful in bringing up dialogue about public art projects and their impact, according to Barrett.

This discussion has not always been constructive, though. Chair of the PPAC Beverly Schor agrees.

“The current tone, especially that on the internet, has been so negative that it really has prohibited discussion because people who want to discuss it seem to get flamed,” said Schor. She adds how this could have been prevented.

“It’s always best to have community involvement at the front of the project instead of coming in at the end,” said Schor. “And whatever we can do to get people involved will only make the process not only better but more constructive for everyone. Because, you know, without public input at the beginning, there’s very little that we can actually do because we can’t second guess what people want.”

Barrett adds she is also surprised by the tone of the negative reaction.

“I really have been extremely disappointed with the number of people who have been kind of rigid and rude about their opinions on this, and that that has really been disappointing and not something that I usually associate with people from Petaluma,” she said.

Andrews recognizes that there are “less-than-diplomatic responses” on social media, especially within his Facebook organization. However, he argues that there have been many well-articulated responses that are overlooked.

“I guess my problem with the PPAC’s reaction is that they just sort of lump it all together … and dismiss the entire commentary from social media, because, you know, there are a handful of negative comments that probably were not very well thought through. But the fact is that there has also been a lot of very good discussion on social media,” said Andrews.

Arguably, though, this dialogue has been overall a beneficial aspect of public art installations. PPAC member Heather Mackin agrees with this sentiment.

“I am personally dismayed at the level of negativity it has brought out in our community … [However,] I think art is inherently open to controversy. Art has held this position and responsibility throughout history. Art should make us think, ask questions, discuss. It should challenge or soothe or just make us feel something — good or bad,” said Mackin.

Goggin has described publicly the Victorian era inspiration for “Fine Balance,” but Andrews disagrees with the historical context, calling it “concocted.”

“If you don’t have a historical context, then the piece has to stand on its own aesthetically … and bathtubs on stilts … I don’t get an aesthetic out of that. It’s not a beautiful thing. It’s not something that enhances this space, it’s not something that causes me to want to be there because, you know, somehow, I’m made more whole or more fulfilled by their presence,” said Andrews. “So you find that Goggin’s meaning behind the piece is pretty invalid.”

A portion of the refutes of Goggin’s work stem from aesthetic purposes, although location and cost are also factors in negative feedback. As a supporter of Andrews’ anti-tub Facebook group, Jeff Erbst commented on one post, “The primary problem that most folks have is that it is ridiculous.” Another commenter, Rene Foppe said, “It’s not the location; it’s the art itself. It says nothing about our town, nor does it have any pleasing look about it.”

Local artist Lucia Antonelli has been creating one-of-a-kind jewelry in Petaluma for 45 years and is also opposed to “Fine Balance.” She believes the problem with this project stems from the location.

“I began to really contemplate how something like that would, how it would be the placement of it in that area that’s very congested visually, it just felt wrong to me,” said Antonelli. “I don’t like to criticize another artist’s work, I think it’s all subjective. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So I personally find the tub would only have merit and integrity if they replaced in a wide open space with no visual obstruction.”

Photo by Andrew Gotshall
Anti-tub advocates handed out stickers stating simply, “Save our Petaluma River.”

Amy Critchett is the executive director of public artworks at the Leo Villareal Studio and has worked with public art projects in the past in Petaluma. She says she respects both sides of the issue but also has concerns about the tone of this renewed passion about public art.

“I have been told by some, not all, in opposition of … Fine Balance that they do not care about how the art world regards Petaluma, and that too is a shame. Disregarding the power of the creative forces outside of our sweet little town is short sided and not good for our community,” said Critchett. “I have been told by prominent local artists that they would not create a public artwork here if invited to do so and that is a shame and not good for our community.”

Clearly, these comments have been heard to some extent, as the appeal by community members was successful. It is unclear how the PPAC and the project will continue because this appeal process is new to the PPAC and rare in general Petaluma government proceedings.

And, anti-bathtub efforts by Andrews and like-minded citizens seem not to be ceasing. Andrews’ GoFundMe fundraiser for “legal effort” against the PPAC’s decision and the project, in general, are continuing: currently, the fundraiser has more than $7,000.

For those who would like to get involved, the PPAC’s monthly meetings are held on the fourth Thursday of every month and are typically held at the Petaluma Arts Center, but city website will list the specific location per month. Agendas and notes from past sessions are also available here, and public comment is welcome at the beginning of each session.

This story was originally published on The Gaucho Gazette on April 19, 2019.