.Bathtubs on Stilts: Petaluma’s Most Divisive Public Art Piece Finally Going In This Summer

Remember the controversial public-art proposal that emerged years ago in Petaluma, to install a riverfront sculpture of five clawfoot bathtubs towering 20 to 25 feet above ground? Its official title is “Fine Balance,” but most locals know it as “The Bathtubs on Stilts.” About one decade back, city arts planners bought the sculpture from San Francisco artist Brian Goggin for a cool $150,000, shelling out another $80,000-plus for environmental studies. And this July, against all odds, a slightly pared down and relocated version of the bathtub art that divided a community is going to be installed at last along the Petaluma River, according to the Press Democrat. Indeed: The artist has been posting Instagram progress pics from his studio as he puts the finishing touches on his tub art. The Press Democrat has a fascinating new story on the seven-member Public Art Committee that approved it for Petaluma, which a reporter calls “the least understood, and most harshly criticized, public service committee in town.” Committee members tell the PD that while they often see loads of criticisms after they approve stuff, they never hear a peep from anyone during the public-input period. That said: Given all the pushback on the bathtub art — including a GoFundMe campaign called “Citizens Against Tubs on Stilts” that raised nearly $10,000 on a rally cry that the art was locally irrelevant, potentially unsafe, “inappropriate for the location” and just plain ugly — the committee did agree to move it from its original proposed location on the Water Street promenade to a more out-of-the-way “pocket park on H Street,” still along the river. And there are now only two bathtubs on stilts, instead of five. Here’s some more fun history for you: Back in 2019, five years into the saga, the project landed in the Bohemian’s “Best of the North Bay” issue, taking the gold for “Best Public Art Dustup.” In the writeup, we called this “starkly steam-punkish” art piece “one of the most divisive happenings Petaluma has witnessed since Highway 101 split the town into west side and east side.” More from the issue: “The tubs — five old-fashioned, claw-foot bathtubs suspended on towering metal stilts — were paid for out of a mandated fund collected from private developers who build new stuff in town, and must either cough up 1 percent of their building costs or spend the same amount commissioning their own artwork on their site. The installation is expected to be erected this fall on Water Street, overlooking the Petaluma River’s turning basin. While there are plenty who actually look forward to the installation (proudly sporting ‘The Tubs Will Rise’ buttons), the howl of outrage from dissenters has become so vitriolic that discussion of the tubs has been banned on social media sights like the popular ‘I Love Petaluma!’ Facebook page. It’s not the first time Petalumans have seen an art display spark major controversy. Thirty-six years ago, in 1982, local artists Tim Read and the late Guy Scohy found themselves at the center of a massive maelstrom when they were invited to install a number of brightly colored metal sculptures outside the downtown history museum. The public outcry was immediate. Many called the sculptures ugly, too modern or too strange. Others (the project’s defenders) argued that ugliness was beside the point, that art is art and is intended to inflame public conversation. The city of Petaluma soon jumped in, citing the structures’ potential danger to the public (sharp edges, etc.) and ordered the sculptures to be removed. Disappointed in his fellow Petalumans’ lack of support for art and creativity, Scohy soon after left town. Read himself now lives in New Mexico. Will Petaluma once again cave to art critics and pull the plug on the tubs? It’s a real soap opera. We’ll just have to wait and see.” Now, I have the distinct honor of answering a fellow Bohemian writer from my perch in The Future: Bro. It’s really happening. (Source: North Bay Bohemian & Press Democrat & Press Democrat & GoFundMe & SF Gate & Petaluma Argus-Courier & Brian Goggin via Instagram)

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