Care to Dance? The Future of Arts Journalism

USC Annenberg’s Sasha Anawalt keeps arts journalism alive during turbulent times in media.

March 07, 2016 Elizabeth Segal

Ask Sasha Anawalt when her obsession with the arts began, and she’ll fondly look back to her childhood in New York City.

Lively dinner table conversations about the arts with her father, a painter, and mother, a dance critic, stretched long into the evenings. When the legendary Soviet-born ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev fled to the West in 1961, his story captured the family’s imagination. “His defection changed our lives!” she remembers.

Dance, in particular, was a constant from an early age. “My sister and I went with my parents to the ballet many nights a week—in our pajamas—and did our homework during intermissions at City Center,” Anawalt says. She would go on to become chief dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, National Public Radio affiliate KCRW and LA Weekly. In 1996, she published a Los Angeles Times best-selling cultural biography, The Joffrey Ballet: Roberty Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company.

My sister and I went with my parents to the ballet many nights a week—in our pajamas.

Sasha Anawalt

Now director of arts journalism programs at USC Annenberg, Anawalt wants her students to experience the same sort of passionate discussions about the arts. She takes them behind the scenes to the studios of artists like Bill Viola and Kira Perov and architect Frank Gehry ’54. She also showcases LA’s diversity with trips to the J. Paul Getty Museum and a theater troupe on Skid Row.

But even with exposure to LA’s art world, Anawalt knows her students have challenges ahead. The rise of the Internet disrupted traditional journalism, and newsrooms have cut many of their arts reporting positions.

Yet the electronic media revolution has also spurred an unprecedented explosion of diverse voices and opinions. Anawalt spearheaded a popular course that gives students entrepreneurial skills. Her former students have found niches at the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, The Smithsonian, the Pritzker Architecture Prize and their own startups. Anawalt has seen enrollment in USC Annenberg’s arts journalism program more than double since it started in 2008.

Now Anawalt is looking ahead to new projects and starting an arts, culture and entertainment desk. This student-run online news center will help fill a void in LA arts coverage by partnering with the Los Angeles Times, KCET’s ArtBound and KPCC public radio.

“Instead of competing, we need to join forces by telling stories together and sharing research around a central hub,” she says. “What better than a university to be that common ground?”

She’s also launching the DanceMapLA project online, featuring data visualizations, a dance survey and up-to-the-minute updated dance articles, chat and news.

For Anawalt, discovering and sharing the world of the arts is essential to being human. If no one had written about Nureyev, she wonders, would she ever have seen him perform?

“When you see something that moves you, that opens your eyes to what a miracle human beings can be, you want to tell others. It’s hardwired in our nature,” she says. “Arts journalism isn’t going to go away. There are too many artists out there to enthrall us, and make us want to tell the world.”