Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting Moscow in the Picture

Courtesy of The Moscow House of Photography
Olga Sviblova, the ambitious director of the Moscow House of Photography, has peculiar taste in jobs: "The six years that I spent being a street cleaner was the best time of my life."

While that may come as a surprise from the glamorous 53-year-old, after speaking to her for one hour, it becomes more apparent why.

Sviblova, a well-known figure in Moscow's art circles, brought the 10-year-old Moscow House of Photography into existence. Not only did this allow the work of internationally acclaimed photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Mapplethorpe to enter the country, it also altered Russia's opinion of the art.

"People used to think photography was only good for passports and naked women; now my gallery is one of the most popular in Moscow," Sviblova said.

Her success comes with the price of a hectic lifestyle and little time to herself.

"When I was a street cleaner, it was great. I was free in the evenings, I didn't need to go to the gym because I was active all day, and I got paid quite well for the time," Sviblova said between aggressive phone calls, cigarettes and giving her assistant instructions on what should be going on at customs. With the number of events currently going on in Sviblova's life, the atmosphere is tense for a Sunday afternoon.

Sviblova explained the dramas: "This is my problem. I have these butterflies, and the construction of this museum along with the Venice Biennale and the fact that in a month we are starting our festival, which is not ready. You want to talk about my life? This is my life."

The butterflies are for an exhibition, and importing the dead creatures through customs is one of her many worries. Another is the construction of her new gallery, which she wants completed by the Moscow House of Photography's 11th birthday in November, but building has barely commenced. And the festival that's not ready is Fashion and Style, a photography tradition that she began and that is now to run for the fifth time.


Courtesy of The Moscow House of Photography
Sviblova is known for energy and drive.
Sviblova married at 19, and was already involved in the arts scene through some friends of her first husband, a poet. The street cleaning was a part-time job, as poetry did not pay well.

Originally a biology student, Sviblova realized that her interest in animals was a result of her greater interest in human beings, so after two years, she switched to psychology. She wrote her dissertation on the psychology behind creative processes, receiving a diploma with high distinction. For her higher degree, she wrote about the contemporary Russian art in Western magazines from a psychological viewpoint and examined art as a social phenomenon.

By the time the first official exhibition of "nonofficial art" took place in 1986, she realized that she knew quite a lot about it because all the unofficial artists were her friends. She decided to make a documentary about their work.

"I loved their art," she said. "Whenever someone likes something, the natural instinct is to share it, and that instinct is particularly developed in me."

The film, "Chyorny Kvadrat," received critical acclaim at the Cannes film festival and cemented her role in the Moscow artistic sphere. Her son, a student of Moscow's VGIK film school, seems to be following in her footsteps.

In early 1994, Sviblova decided that Moscow needed a photography exhibition after visiting one in Paris.

"In the early '90s, Russia needed history, and photographs are a historical fact," she said. "All contemporary artists were increasingly more involved in photography. As usual, I followed the direction of contemporary art."

Sviblova had overseen exhibitions before and knew about the hurdles ahead. Using a fax machine that her second husband had given her as a present, she sent out 300 faxes to potential investors in an attempt to secure funding. Eventually, tobacco company Philip Morris agreed to take part. They worked together for five years, in what Sviblova described as a fair and fantastic arrangement.

After the first Photobiennale, Sviblova decided that Moscow needed a museum. She wrote a letter to the Culture and Press Ministry, which replied that if the exhibition were successful, she could have her gallery. When she came back from a vacation soon afterward, she found herself the director of the Moscow House of Photography on the prestigious Ulitsa Ostozhenka. Since then, she has held more than 1,500 exhibits, the latest of which, "Pierre et Gilles," is running now at the Manezh.

"I am in awe of her as a person and a figure in the arts world," said Moscow art critic Yulia Lebedeva. "She has brought photography into mainstream art in Russia and allowed photography students to have some amazing precedents in front of them. I admire her for her energy and drive."

The energy and drive do not come from a healthy lifestyle. "I never get to bed before 4 a.m.," said Sviblova, stubbing out a cigarette. "The reason that I have achieved this is through very hard work; I don't have a very good understanding of the concept of vacations."

The phone rang again: more problems with the the new gallery's construction.

"I have to get [Mayor Yury] Luzhkov on the phone," she said. "That's the only way things get done in Moscow."