Petaluma’s ever-controversial bathtub art inches closer to completion

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It’s been praised, maligned, funded, and threatened with vandalism. Ultimately it was scaled down and relocated. But Fine Balance, arguably the most hotly contested public art project in Petaluma’s history, is still inching toward completion.

The project, which has stirred intense controversy locally at least since its approval in 2018, is now projected to be done by the end of this year, according to Petaluma Public Art Committee members during a July 27 meeting at City Hall.

Created by San Francisco artist Brian Goggin, the current project calls for two clawfoot bathtub sculptures to be raised on stilts over a concrete foundation in a tiny city-owned park on H Street where it meets the Petaluma River. The taller of the two will stand more than 24 feet above ground level, according to a diagram of the artwork.

That version is scaled down from the original one, which called for five bathtub sculptures to be placed along the Water Street promenade in the heart of downtown Petaluma.

Currently, the artist is waiting for some final applications to be approved by the city, including a building permit application submitted this past spring, said city public art specialist David Ward at the July 27 meeting.

“We’re still working with Brian (Goggin) and his team to finalize the building permit and get that installation date pinned down,” Ward said. “We’re hopeful that the permit will be issued by (November) and will have an installation plan with the city by then.”

Public Art Committee member Melissa Abercrombie told the Argus-Courier recently that fabrication of the artwork is already underway, and that the site on H Street is being cleaned up and prepared for installation.

She added that Goggin was also working to resubmit a plan on lighting around the project site as well as ADA-compliant site access.

“The lighting can’t be uplighting because of city light ordinances, so he’s coming up with creative ways to have it lit up at night,” Abercrombie said, adding that Goggin is hoping to incorporate toned-down, ambient lighting around the sculptures at night.

In August 2017, Goggin was awarded a contract by the City Council for design development of the project. The original version of Fine Balance – calling for five clawfoot bathtubs to be raised above Water Street along the Petaluma River – was introduced to the public in 2018.

The artwork drew both praise and scorn, and after years of pushback over cost, aesthetic value and possible environmental impacts, its location and scope were revised to the current version, details of which can be seen at cityofpetaluma.org/fine-balance.

Committee members called the new version a “compromise between the community and the artist.”

“We looked to it as an opportunity to see what community compromise looks like and how to find success in something that a lot of people find (contentious),” Abercrombie said.

The Public Art Committee unanimously approved the revised project in March 2022, and moved it on to the City Council, which also unanimously approved it less than two months later.

Fine Balance – the first public artwork to be commissioned by Petaluma’s Public Art Committee – is funded by the Public Art Fund, which collects money from developers of large projects who choose not to install their own public art. None of the funds are provided by taxpayers, and the Public Art Fund cannot be used to pay for anything other than public art.

While they wait for the city to approve applications, art committee members are planning a tour of Goggin’s studio to better understand the artwork’s elements.

“That way we can communicate best to the public when there are questions or concerns,” Abercrombie said.

Amelia Richardson is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at [email protected] or 707-521-5208.

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