PROFILE: Ozlu's passion turns public affairs into an art form

Nina Ozlu combines her love of the arts with her propensity for advocacy to keep the Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization, on the minds of officials in DC and around the country.

Nina Ozlu combines her love of the arts with her propensity for advocacy to keep the Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization, on the minds of officials in DC and around the country.

The advocacy skills of Nina Ozlu, VP of government and public affairs at the Americans for the Arts, first caught the media's attention when she was in elementary school. The Lock Haven, PA, newspaper had come to her school to cover a show-and-tell of farm animals. But for Ozlu, the big deal wasn't the excitement of animals at school - it was the choke chains around their necks. So, what was to be a story on kids learning about animals became a story about the cruelty of choke chains and about a 7-year-old girl who made a formidable case for the humane treatment of animals to school administrators. "That's Nina through and through," says Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, who has known Ozlu since 1997, when they began working together to save the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from the Newt Gingrich-devised chopping block. "It's an early demonstration of the power of a person who cares." Since 1997, Ozlu has used her passion for the arts and her natural talent for advocacy to help the nonprofit Americans for the Arts by overseeing a vast network of public-awareness initiatives and lobbying efforts to increase arts funding and arts education. The organization represents more than 4,000 arts groups and this year had a record budget of $12 million (up from $2.7 million in 1996). New York PR agency Goodman Media organizes editorial board meetings, while Ozlu is the media lead on advocacy issues. Americans for the Arts also provides research, offers professional development, and produces events, including Arts Advocacy Day and the National Arts Awards. This fall, it will launch a subsidiary, citizen-based political organization to aggressively lobby at all levels. Ozlu, who is also an attorney, leads the legal and communications efforts for the launch of the new nonprofit. She loves her job because she knows her efforts will yield results for kids, families, and communities. So she and her in-house staff of seven work tirelessly on Capitol Hill and around the country to keep the arts at the forefront of the minds of policy-makers. "Nina has an excellent political tuning fork," says Bob Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. "So much advocacy tends to be cosmetic [and not] really strategic. She understands what will be effective and not just what will look good." Led by Lynch and Ozlu, Americans for the Arts mounted a successful three-year battle to save the NEA when its funding was cut by 40% immediately after the 1994 elections. In fact, it was slated to be zeroed out altogether. By uniting arts groups and grassroots organizations, pooling resources, and enlisting high-profile celebrities to visit Congress, Americans for the Arts was instrumental in changing the NEA's fate. Efforts also helped revive the Congressional Arts Caucus, which has served as a voting block to protect and rebuild the NEA. "There was a time when there wasn't anybody - Democrat or Republican - who thought that [the NEA] could be pulled out of the fire," Lynch says. "The arts community really didn't understand how at-risk they were. They always think, 'Someone out there is taking care of it.' The person who was taking care of it was Nina." Lynch adds that this year the NEA won its highest margin of victory on the appropriation vote - 241 to 185. He cites Ozlu's long-term commitment as invaluable. "She's a combination of an artist and an attorney," he says. "She has this wonderful love of art, and an immersion in art that is quick, knowledgeable, and joyful. Her driving, specific, and highly intelligent side is the attorney side. It's a wonderful package that's perfect for arts advocacy because she understands politics and why art is important in every kid's life." Ozlu's passion for the arts is rooted in her childhood. "Cultural understanding is very important to me because my parents are Turkish," she explains. "I threw myself into a Time Life series on the great museums and learned about each country's culture through the arts. I grew up speaking Turkish, and I really learned English through a cultural context rather than a language context." Ozlu, who speaks five languages, lived in Paris while studying French literature as an undergraduate. She kept learning languages to better understand other people's perspectives. Her altruism and intelligence make her well-liked by those she works with. "She's made me better," says Andy Finch, senior director of government affairs at Americans for the Arts since last year. Finch had been Ozlu's colleague and friend since 1993, and he says she helped make working the transition easy. "She's very demanding and forthright, but you get a tremendous amount of communication," he says. While she considers her role in helping save the NEA as one of her greatest accomplishments, Ozlu is also proud of helping to get the arts defined as a core subject in basic education and the success of a three-year PSA effort - "Art. Ask for More." - that has generated more than $80 million in donated media coverage from a $1 million budget. "Nina has exceedingly high standards," says Michelle Hillman, the Ad Council's senior campaign director. "'Art. Ask for More.' has gotten enormous media support. She was the lead in developing that." Ozlu understands the importance of media coverage. "Elected leaders listen to the public who elects them," Ozlu says. "In order to get the public to make the arts an important issue, we need the media to help us educate them." This is easier said than done. A Columbia School of Journalism study found that arts coverage was increasingly being replaced by entertainment news in the 1990s. The most covered "arts story" of the time was a debate about who actually fathered Michael Jackson's children, and the biggest category of arts coverage was obituaries of entertainers and artists. "We've got our work cut out for us," Ozlu admits. Nonetheless, she'll continue to lead efforts to bring focus to what's important. January 1997-present VP of government and public affairs, Americans for the Arts March 1993-December 1996 VP of public and private sector affairs, National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies May 1987-March 1993 Deputy director, International Sculpture Center December 1986-May 1987 Legislative liaison, National Artists Equity Association

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