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2010: The Year in Culture

Tyler Boyce
Tyler Boyce
Top 10 local (and not-so-local) arts and culture stories

It's that time of year! Here are the top 10 stories from The Bay Citizen's Culture desk. Some of them (Beard of Brian) are firmly fixed in this calendar year, some will continue to evolve (street food mania) and some are a bit of both (creative mapping, online and off, is everywhere). 2010 wasn't necessarily the cheeriest of years, as the economy continued to stagnate, but it wasn't boring either.

1. Mark Twain, breakout author. 

Mark Twain book

The surprise literary hit of the year was the return of Mark Twain to the top of national best-seller lists. The beloved author, who spent a few seminal years in the Bay Area in the 1860s as a journalist and budding writer and orator, would no doubt be pleased by the turn his career has taken of late. Thanks to his own shrewd marketing of his rambling autobiography, which he finished in 1909 with the stipulation that it couldn’t be published until 100 years after his death, this year’s publication of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain” set off a wave of Twain-mania. The 700-plus-page “doorstopper,” as Gary Kamiya called it in his Citizen Twain blog, is the result of decades of work by the Mark Twain Project in Berkeley, where Twain’s archives are housed. Whether or not Mark Twain was the original blogger, as some critics have quipped in regard to the entertaining but discursive and wordy “Autobiography,” hardly matters; even the fact that 90 percent of the material of this volume has already been published slipped by many reporters. What’s amazing is that thousands of readers would pay $45 to find out for themselves.

2. Banksy comes to town.


In a year that saw the laser cat eyes mural and the arrest of public-art-vandalizing-and-generally-crazy Katie Dunbar, aka KKK Katie, the biggest local street art story seemed to come from an out-of-towner. When UK artist Banksy (or his assistants) slipped into San Francisco in late April, around the time that his Oscar-nominated documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which may or may not be a hoax itself, came out, the city took notice. A signature stencil appeared above the McSweeney's office on Valencia Street; the iconic rat showed up in SOMA and the Haight. Even Treasure Island got tagged. Online, in blogs like Uptown Almanac and SFist, debate raged about whether it was really Banksy; whether the pieces were just PR for the film or whether they were valuable works; what it meant that the blogs blew up over his politically charged pieces. Those issues, of authenticity and authorship and “is this art,” are still as relevent today as when Banksy first started bombing London. 

3. Ansel Adams in the yard sale, Picassos in the closet.

Norsigian print

Speaking of authenticity, 2010 saw quite a few stories dealing with the veracity of art finds. First, The New Yorker's David Grann came out with an amazing story about an art forger that touched on what really goes into art authentication: should it be an expert's eye or forensic testimony? Then, over the summer, the announcement by a Fresno man that he had proved that 65 glass plate negatives bought at a garage sale 10 years ago were the work of Ansel Adams rocked the photo world. The appraiser, who turned out to be a convicted felon with limited art experience, put the worth at $200 million. Within a few days, though, an 87-year-old Oakland woman came forward with an alternate theory: that her uncle, Earl Brooks, was the real photographer. The debate, with its many twists and turns, has now (inevitably) entered the legal realm. It may be impossible to ever truly authenticate those plates, given the lack of hard evidence. In late November, though, another story of an Antiques Roadshow-style success emerged. A French electrician came forward with a $60 million cache of 175 works by Picasso, made between 1900 and 1932, that he had kept in his closet. As with all of these cases, there is controversy, as Picasso's family claims that the pictures were stolen, not given to the electrician. Still, though, the dream of happening upon a great treasure trove of art persists.

4. (Don't) fear the beard.


In 2010, it was hard to walk into a rock show or AT&T Park and not be besieged by beards. Even before Brian Wilson allowed us to gaze upon his oddly dark face-sweater, the "hipster beard" had taken over the Pitchfork crowd. Gone were clean-shaven faces and small hooded sweatshirts: men's fashion gave a bear hug to buffalo plaid, messy long locks and as much facial hair as a man/boy could grow. It hasn't gone unnoticed that elements of bear culture — the gay men's movement from the '70s that grew out of a rejection of the muscled, hairless "twink" aesthetic so prevalent at the time — influenced both hipsters and Brian Wilson, who also impressed fans with his leather creation, The Machine, a gimp-like creature who kept popping up in interviews. Beards, either drawn on or homegrown, may have receeded from Bay Area streets now that Giants fever has subsided, but they haven't completely gone out of style yet. 

5. The year that the mid-Market arts district didn't quite happen.


When almost ex-Mayor Newsom announced his latest budget in June, he did so in a symbolically appropriate place: the Luggage Store gallery, a longtime arts venue located right at the notorious intersection of Sixth and Market streets. (For a map of the area, see our interactive and also Susie Cagle's hand-drawn one.) He wanted to emphasize a new loan program designed to get more arts organizations into the area. It was key to his multi-year effort to transform the blighted mid-Market area into a thriving arts district. Money poured in from the National Endowment for the Arts (a $250,000 grant, matched and then some by city and private funds) and a performing arts festival and arts market began this fall. And yet... it's one thing to talk about arts as an economic engine, it's another thing to make it happen. As reported by the SF Public Press, so far only one business has taken advantage of the loan program. No word yet on whether other high-profile projects will actually happen — such as A.C.T.'s expansion onto Market Street for a second theater venue/education space. It remains to be seen whether 2011 will inaugurate a flurry of arts activity on those chaotic streets or whether Newsom's dream will die on the vine as he heads to Sacramento. 

6. Mapping, online and off.

solnit monarchs

Forget your favorite movie. What was your favorite map last year? One of the best ways to tap into the local map zeitgeist is the citizen geography blog Burrito Justice, where you can find out whether or not you live in the Transamerica Cone of Invisibility (attention Bernal residents!). For a window into the intersection between data, design and mapping, check out Mission District-based industry leaders Stamen Design, which has created or collaborated on Cabspotting and Crimespotting maps, Graffiti Archeology to display years of street art, new tools for OpenStreetMap, and many other innovations. It’s all as gorgeous as it is useful. On the conceptual end of mapping, there’s UC Berkeley experimental geographer and photographer Trevor Paglen, who uses cameras designed for astronomy to capture images of U.S. military sites and operations hidden from public view, such as black sites, intelligence satellites and secret military bases in the Southwest. The idea behind his work — making the invisible visible — is widely applicable in a world where information is power. To enter the world of historical maps, visit DonaldRumsey.com. The San Francisco map collector is committed to making historical maps widely available to the public, including on his island in Second Life and as a historical mapping layer in Google Maps. But for map of the year, the standout is Rebecca Solnit’s “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” — an inspiring collection of 22 essays and maps on topics such as butterfly habitats and gay public space, or “Vertigo” sites and Eadweard Muybridge landmarks. With its attention to little-told stories, Solnit’s work is a good reminder that there’s always more to be mapped.

7. Arts programming as events.


With a stagnant economy, internet-as-TV and Angry Birds, finding reasons to leave the house is harder than ever. This is why event-based marketing — from film festivals to author readings — became de rigueur this year. It's no longer simply enough to program interesting films at a rep house theater, for instance: as the Grease national singalong showed, this is a countrywide phenomenon. Locally, it manifested itself in things like Lost Weekend Video's new event series (featuring folks like Jonathan Richman), which helped to draw bodies to the store. Museums expanded popular late-night programming, with DJs and bars and special talks. While it can sometimes seem exhausting to make everything a one-time-only special event, expect more festivals and creative hybrids (like the Mountain Goats playing at the Castro Theatre) and less ordinary booking in 2011.

8. The Kickstarter of (fill in the blank).

Crowdsourcing once sounded like a utopian concept but now it is standard practice not just for struggling artists and filmmakers, but for arts institutions. After Barack Obama's groundbreaking success in the 2008 election with his online donations, many hope that crowdsourcing sites can tap into the power of micropatrons of the arts. The leader in this crowded online field is, of course, Kickstarter. Started in April 2009 by Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler, the site is immensely powerful: Just this month, one Kickstarter project (turning an iPod nano into a watch) raised more than $940,000. But Kickstarter is far from the only crowdfunding site out there. Almost every kind of project has its own Kickstarter. IndieGoGo, for instance, is like Kickstarter except it lets you keep the money you raise even if you don't hit your target. Pledge Music is for bands, Book Raiser for literary projects, nonprofit funding organization USA Artists just launched Artists2Artists. Already, the surfeit of online projects that need help has disillusioned some with the promise of meritocratic giving, but the influence of Kickstarter doesn't appear to be waning any time soon.

9. Street food no passing fancy.

Off the Grid food cart

2010 wasn't quite the year that street food (more specifically, mobile street food vendors besides the already popular Tamale Lady) blew up: that's more like 2009. But street food proved itself to be more than a trendy notion this year. First of all, through the unlikely Food Network figure of Olympic figureskater and SF resident Brian Boitano (among others), it went national. Locally, events like Off the Grid (a weekly street food gathering at Fort Mason) and food festivals like Eat Real brought new mouths to the nomadic trucks. More recently, though, San Francisco took steps to streamline the application process and requirements for street food vendors, assuring city revenue (most controversially, in Dolores Park) and giving the trucks legal status. From tacos to crème brûlée to Blue Bottle coffee and beyond, street food culture doesn't appear to be going anywhere.

10. Reading series expand.


Storytelling, poetry slams, Literary Death Match, Lit Crawl, book swaps... in 2010, literary events went way beyond an author standing at a podium reading from a recently published book. Thanks to dedicated chroniclers of Bay Area literary happenings like Evan Karp, it seemed one couldn't open a calendar without seeing write-ups on reading series. Some, like the popular Monday night Rumpus, were tied to publications; others, like the long-standing Porchlight storytelling night, don't have anything to do with reading itself, just talking. Booksellers like the Booksmith creatively added things like a book swap to their schedule of more traditional author book tour stops (see item #7 for more on the rise of event marketing) to ground their core bookstore business. Even as publishing itself grappled with what to do with new devices like iPads and Kindles, audiences came out in droves to support local writers. (And look for The Bay Citizen's interactive database of reading series in the coming year.)

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