Whether you tweet, text, surf or just hunker down in front of your smart phone, tablet or widescreen, no one has to tell you we’re in the grip of awards season. Yet while the Oscars, Grammys, Addys, Emmys and Tonys do relative justice to popular art and entertainment, there are very few honors bestowed upon the fine and classical arts. During his State of the Union address last week, President Obama lamented America’s poor showing worldwide in math and science educational outcomes. “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated,” he said, “but also the winner of the science fair.” Given the way high school and college sports dominate media and extracurriculars, the president could have easily substituted recital, concert, art show or school play for “science fair.” That he didn’t speaks volumes of where American priorities are as to what constitutes a quality of life. It’s a message not missed by artists and instructors in the humanities. At the local level, the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Association will do what it can to put the spotlight on the visual arts Sunday, Feb. 13 at its annual awards night. And while most Omaha artists will tell you it’s not about the competition, make no mistake, they appreciate the recognition of their peers and the public. Even more, visual artists need to be seen. Seen, that is, in their curated exhibits in area venues. In 2010 there were dozens of fine art shows, close to 150 in galleries, museums and art centers in Omaha alone. Sadly, very few received coverage from local mainstream media, another commentary on “The Good Life.” They deserved better. Toward this end, welcome to the fifth annual A-List, a summary and acknowledgement of the best art exhibits organized in the Omaha market in 2010. At least based on the opinions of yours truly, based on the following criteria. There are no awards, medals or ribbons, just the pleasure of revisiting some of the most entertaining and enlightening work local artists and shows had to offer in legitimate venues. Last year this critic reviewed 46 exhibits in Omaha alone. So many that, unlike past A-Lists that included outstanding work in Lincoln, the plethora of fine art on view here deserved coverage and kept travel time to a minimum. For that reason, last year’s list includes only Omaha shows, though two fine exhibits from Sheldon were reviewed as part of its year-long celebration of women in the arts. The only other thing missing this time around is the key arts events and issues that surfaced in 2010 that we covered in January. To that list we can add the following: the sad news that Bellevue University has dropped its undergraduate fine arts major, leaving some staff and many students scrambling for Plan B. Further evidence of diminished interest in the visual arts in education; this, on top of a continuing lack of a Master of Fine Arts program offered anywhere in Omaha. Better “news” is the rumor that the former Polyester Gallery will resurface after closing at 1618 Harney. Owner Bill Eiseman is currently checking out possible sites in the Old Market area. More news than rumor is the anticipated spring/summer opening of a new gallery in Omaha by artist Larry Roots, owner of Modern Arts Midwest. Roots is currently renovating the old Eisenberg Gallery at 36th and Dodge. If Roots brings the same quality and sophisticated exhibits that he enjoys in Lincoln to this new space, Omaha has a lot to look forward to. Once again we will use the same three-tier approach to the 2010 A-List we employed last year. The third tier is composed of exhibits of emerging artists whose work may lack a bit of polish or it may feature a show from any artist whose reach exceeds its grasp or lacks consistency in spite of being innovative, exemplary work. For many, these are among the most enjoyable shows for their freshness, audacity and charm. The second tier usually exhibits mature work from established artists or innovative examples from new artists that belie their age or experience. What’s important here is that the show lives up to its concept or promise or that the artist has shown some growth and isn’t merely covering a familiar group, however good it may be. As for group shows in either tier, the work should be discriminating and cohesive with a curatorial point of view. The third tier is reserved only for the most professional, unified and creative shows that would work in any metropolitan area. The work is either risky and edgy or extraordinarily sophisticated, often both. These artists have taken the viewer to another place, at least in 2010, and their shows may have even exceeded their own expectations; certainly there is always present the element of surprise. Simply put, these exhibits are all Best in Show for last year. For each tier we will draw only from the shows seen and reviewed. We will list and briefly describe all nominees in each and then reveal the top three as either gold standard, silver star or bronze medal, according to the criteria and their individual characteristics. You may see things differently, which is fine as this writer will be happy that we can agree to have seen the same work. If you missed any of these exhibits you missed something special. All of them deserved some face time above and beyond their enjoyable openings. Many of the reviews of these shows can be found at TheReader.com. That said, there are two additional caveats. Two of the largest exhibits in 2010, the Bemis Auction Show and the Kent Bellows exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum, Beyond Realism, are not included here. As mentioned before, fundraising group shows and retrospectives are larger-than-life events rather than current contemporary art shows and were recognized as such in the previous article. Secondly, since this A-List is limited to Omaha, the two Sheldon shows reviewed, Shrew’d and Seductive Subversions ,would, would have easily made the top tier as this venue continues to be a leader in exhibiting superior contemporary art. Beginning with the third tier we have three honorable mentions, all of which represented the best shows last year at Hot Shops Art Center: Mike Giron’s ambitious but too academic The Future of Painting, the Print Guild’s eclectic Last Show Ever, and the interesting but inconsistent Out of the Woods. Runner-up shows and the top three include the following: * Dana Rose’s coming out solo show at RNG, American Byproduct. A worthy mixed media catalogue of her talent, this slightly edgy show would have benefited from a curatorial edit, but hopefully her best work is on the horizon. * SODZO, another promising show, this one in the Bemis Underground from emerging artist Tana Quincy, whose 20 small paintings of body tissue and tendon were an unexpected understatement of an intense personal nature. * Body as Text at RNG. This mixed media group exhibit curated by photographer Larry Ferguson was all over the map, as it was the only show last year that explored nudity and sensuality as a form of expression with relative success. * Heavens to Mergatroid, a startling installation from Stephen Azevedo in the Bemis Underground that recreated the Sharon Tate murder scene as a commentary on America’s love/hate fascination with violent death. * Bronze Medal: Cuba, Jim Hendrickson’s revealing photo-journal of our Caribbean neighbor that was less travelogue and more humanistic portrait of a country steeped in pride and humility. * Silver Medal: Tie, between Sallow Suns collage and mixed media by Brian Poloncic and Of Youth and Dreams in the evening of Life, a kinetic shadow play installation from Alex Meyers. Though they both opened the same night, they are polar opposites of personal expression. The former is an iconographic study in introspection and the latter, an extroverted, Rube Goldberg-like exercise in life affirmation. * Gold Medal: Til Death Due Us Part, a two-person show by Rob Gilmer and Louise Millman. In spite of its deliberate self-indulgence, this mixed-media memorial to a 30-year friendship was this Tier’s most ambitious work despite its inconsistencies, an integral part of any relationship and the creative process. Tier II exhibits raise the bar more than a bit and generally deliver according to expectations. From more than 20 qualifiers we have six runners-up and five medal winners counting ties. In addition, solo shows from Christina Narwicz’s Fluid at Anderson O’Brien and Matt Carlson’s Shapeshifters and Jeff King’s My Shadows in the Underground deserve honorable mention. * From the Queen’s Lab, a solo exhibit at the Fred Simon Gallery by David Helm. It featured marvelous narrative and allegorical installations and assemblages that commented on contemporary socio-political issues. Better yet, they were entertaining and academic. * 58.1 Miles, a visionary installation by Yinghua Zhu in the Underground. Both Buddhist and personal, the artist explores her journey to America on the poetic road of enlightenment “through unfamiliar territory.” * Transatlantik, a three-person exhibit at the Moving Gallery featuring photography by Fulvio de Pellegrin and Heidi Lichtenberger and acrylic and charcoal portraits by Paolo Dolzan. Cultural envoys also, these European artists give an unexpected vision of America taken from a 2007 road trip. * Supernova by mixed media artist Bart Vargas at Anderson O’Brien in the Old Market. Vargas’ 200-plus works proved that he could combine intelligent, conceptual themes within a colorful palette and complex abstract design. * Ladies’ Choice by Christine Stormberg in the Bemis Underground. Christine stormed on the Omaha art scene with six outré oil-on-canvas portraits that dare you to look and appreciate her alternative lifestyle and art, both bold statements of femininity. * Equally audacious were Photographs by Ana Sijben, an Amsterdam artist whose portraits of bellies, backs and feet proved that they can be as revealing of character and personality as faces. * Bronze Medal: On and Off the Wall, a solo show from ceramicist and mixed media artist Iggy Sumnik at one of Omaha’s most innovative galleries, New BLK. Sumnik is arguably Omaha’s most original young ceramic artist and his totem, pipe blossoms, chunks, stacks and jelly beans are colorful proof in clay. * Silver Medal: Tie between two very different shows, New Works by Therman Statom at RNG and Slippery Humanist Values, a two-person exhibit at the Jackson Artworks featuring paintings by Watie White and Brent Houzenga. Statom’s glass sculpture and mini installation project an austere detached point-of-view that reflects back on the viewer. Conversely, the satiric and social commentary in Slippery Humanist Values challenges viewers to reexamine a cultural ethos in a constant state of flux. * Gold Medal: Another tie, this time between two outstanding solo shows — New Works by Joseph Broghammer and Scaffolding from Mary Day, a 2010 NAC Artist Fellow. Broghammer’s large-scale pastel drawings of animal imagery are familiar, true, but they never fail to interest with their own blend of humanistic satire and masterful attention to detail. To this most sophisticated series of all, he added a popular “deck of cards,” 52 unframed sketches. Day’s drawings and sculptural objects, currently on display at Bemis and the Fred Simon Gallery in an NAC winner’s show, match Broghammer in sophistication in an equally individual style and vision. Her scope is broader as her elegant and graceful orbital scaffolds are her cosmic response to the chaos that surrounds us. There are no honorable mentions in the first tier; the nine qualifiers deserve singular recognition for one reason or another. The point is that if the top three shows last year weren’t so unusual and strong, the six runners-up would compare favorably in those slots with winners in the past four years. Those runners-up at the highest level include the following: * Watered Down, the multi-installation of Matthew Dehaemer at Creighton University’s Lied Gallery. This Kansas City-based artist followed up his interactive 402 (DisConnect/ReConnect) at Bemis with a more concise and controlled exhibit focusing on Nebraska ecological issues and he did it with a “green” combination of science, beauty and grace. * Holding My Horses, another fine installation from one of Nebraska’s most innovative new media artists, Leslie Iwai that showed at Florence Mill Loft. Unlike Dehaemer’s socio-political installation, finished and polished, Iwai’s signature style is more mythical and ephemeral, a virtual work in progress that became more interesting as the show continued with her center stage creating and inviting the viewer to relate to her personal struggle whether to stay put or move forward with her life and career. * Paintings from the Vision Inhabited House, by Bill Hoover, another superior local artist coming to grips with his future, both personal and career-wise. This most extraordinary series of paintings found Hoover evolving out of a familiar, colorful and folksy, optimistic style and exploring a darker, more abstract and expressionist vision of tomorrow in light of the past. This was exceptional and unexpected growth on view at the seldom seen Stone House Art Gallery at 1508 Leavenworth St. * The Things I Cannot Say, by Rebecca Herskovitz. Even more surprising was this Underground exhibit that featured the nudes, collages and personal landscapes. As she then demonstrated later in Body as Text, this artist doesn’t shy away from the duplicity of eroticism: the desire to express one’s self sexually in art while being vulnerable and exposed to public scrutiny and perception. This was daring and provocative work. * Making the Connection, new experimental photography by German artist Frauke Bergemann in Gallery 616. Bergemann’s return trip after her extraordinary show in the Moving Gallery in 2008 is not quite as startling or contemporary as her earlier Berliner series, but nevertheless this horizontal series on behalf of the preservation of old buildings and cultural landmarks is a show of wonder and unusual perspective, especially her series Buildings in the Waiting Loop. * Borderland Abstraction, curated by Hesse McGraw at the Bemis Center. Large group shows are difficult to digest unless they have a clear concept or visual motif, and no one does group better than this venue. This impressive survey worked hard to query “What is Abstract Art?” and it demanded multiple viewings. * Bronze Medal: Another group show demanding several viewings was McGraw’s even more conceptual and contemporary Hopey Changey Things, an optimistic mixed and new media response to Sarah Palin’s self-serving cynicism about the future. This time Bemis made an even bigger point: Beauty and appreciation are not necessarily sacrificed for the sake of a loftier purpose. * Silver Star: For some, one viewing of Tim Guthrie’s and Doug Hayko’s Extraordinary Rendition in the Underground was more than enough, so powerful was this installation’s sensory impact regardless of where you stood on the issues raised. Those who stood too close to the performance scene depicting torture were left with an indelible impression of last year’s edgiest and most provocative exhibition seen in Omaha. * Gold Standard: Time, Death & Beauty, organized by Matthias Harder, chief curator of the Helmut Newton Museum in Berlin, for the Moving Gallery. No gallery in this region does a better job of taking Omaha to a new place in art, as it has done in the past with similar photography exhibits from Germany and Latin America. Each is characterized by a level of creativity and sophistication seldom seen in this area. This time artists from Germany, Italy and Omaha’s Vera Mercer gloriously proved with their imagery that “All is vanity.” Finally, what ultimately distinguishes the top tier is that more than the other fine work on display last year in this area, these were the exhibits one would have to come to Omaha to see, work that truly made this city a place for fine art.