This year, art could have given us anything, really. Artists owe us nothing. Just existing — surviving — would have been plenty.
Back in January, we were still dreaming of peeking inside a playhouse again or overhearing a few bars of a full orchestra performing, unmediated by machine. Starved of the concerts and plays that we love, that define us, that help us understand the rest of our messy lives, arts aficionados would have made meals of stolen morsels and fallen crumbs.
As we waited, movies saved us. The resurgence of movie musicals, in particular, offered us the kind of escape that screwball comedies gave Great Depression audiences.
Museums had already given arts patrons reason to hope, with their soft reopenings at extremely limited capacity in late 2020. They showed us that major institutions with long-established art viewing norms could revise the art-audience contract and that guests could still come, albeit tentatively at first.
Performing arts fans had to wait longest. We’d done the makeshifts — the uncomfortable one on ones and cumbersome migrations outdoors and cute boxes mailed to our homes; the Zoom and radio shows; the windshield art and phone call theater. Some of these enterprises were and still are worthy. And yet, their novelty wore off eventually, and they left many of us unsatisfied. Too often, we’d close our computer screens after a Twitch concert, look around our same-old homes and feel just the same as when we started, or worse.
Then, finally, Bay Area symphonies and theater and dance groups began returning home, in fits and starts. By that time, we were accustomed to ever-receding goalposts. It was still hard to believe any show dates were real; we didn’t want to let ourselves get disappointed again.
Most, though not all, companies took great precautions. Sometimes, test results came back positive, and rehearsals were delayed or performances canceled. In some cases, showbiz took artists’ well-being more seriously than the industry ever had before.
And through it all — knock on wood — there has not yet been a super-spreader event in the Bay Area tied to arts and entertainment despite a festival season that attracted tens of thousands of people with headliners such as Guns N’ Roses and Miley Cyrus at BottleRock Napa Valley and the Strokes and Lizzo at Outside Lands. By that metric alone, 2021 has been a smashing success in local arts.
Yet producers and artists gave us still more.
There was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s much-delayed debut in his new role as music director with the San Francisco Symphony. There was the premiere of the artsy circus piece “Dear San Francisco” at Club Fugazi (whose run is ongoing!). There was the maritime reveal of Shimon Attie’s “Night Watch,” which turned San Francisco Bay into a canvas for a floating art installation about refugees to the U.S.
Here are the top pieces, shows and trends in 2021 whose ambitions soared far beyond, “Hey, it’s art again.”
Guaranteed income, poetic circus and legit ritual: How Bay Area theater came back in 2021
2021 was a tough year, but the film industry made it a little better
The Chronicle’s top 10 movies of 2021
Spoiler alert: These were the best new shows of 2021
2021 in review: The moments that defined the Bay Area music scene
5 standout releases from Bay Area artists in 2021
After the hiatus, live classical music in 2021 was bursting with treasure
Dance year in review: the most inspiring pandemic pivots of 2021
Visual art in 2021 explored big issues and didn’t shy from controversy
The Chronicle’s 15 best books of 2021
2021’s best books for young adults