From street sweeper to one of the most powerful personalities in the art world, Russia’s top museum director, Olga Sviblova’s climb to the top is anything but ordinary.
Described as ‘a human advertisement for Russian contemporary art’ Olga Sviblova is somewhat of a celebrity in her hometown Moscow, where she is most known for founding the Moscow House of Photography.
During her career – which has spanned over three decades – Olga has curated over 500 exhibitions of contemporary visual art and photography in Russia and across the world. She is also a celebrated, award-winning filmmaker and her documentaries have earned her highly acclaimed awards.
However, success didn’t happen overnight for Olga. She spent seven years as a street cleaner after graduating from Moscow State University with a PhD in Psychology in Arts. Despite being offered a lucrative job offer straight after, Olga declined, stating that she wanted to work in a “job for intelligent people”.
Born: 6 June 1953
education: Moscow State University with a PHD in Psychology
“It was 1978 and I didn’t want to be part of that system, so I told them I couldn’t work for them because I don’t look good in khaki”
Thereafter she took a job sweeping the streets of Moscow and getting accustomed to the underground Russian art scene. With little or no street life or cafes in Moscow at the time, artists had little choice over where they could meet and share ideas. In fact, the first non-state cafe didn’t open in Moscow until 1986. It was this fledgling underground art scene that jump-started Olga’s curatorial career.
“All the artists, poets and writers were street cleaners or night guards. Free time was the greatest privilege in the Soviet Union and, as street cleaners, we had time to talk, read and write”
It was also during this time that Olga organised her first, of many, unofficial art exhibitions at her friends’ apartments.
Soon after, Olga released Black Square – an award-winning documentary about Russia’s underground avant-garde scene – which she hoped would promote and help the artists who inspired her.
The success of the film and her keen eye meant that Olga was able to travel across the world and put Russian artists at the forefront, despite the political warfare happening around her at the time and the fall of the Soviet Union.
“I organised the first festival of Russian underground culture in Finland, which included work by Aleksandr Rodchenko and other avant-garde Russian artists”
Eventually, Olga set up the Moscow House of Photography – the first of its kind in Russia. She and her team spent eight years collecting and curating lost Soviet photography, through tip-offs and word of mouth and built up a collection of around 80,000 pieces of Russian photography.
This impressive collection of Russian history and art also includes a Rodchenko archive, pieces by other modernist artists of the 20th century and even work by Alexander Greenberg, the leader of Russian pictorialism.
In 2010 Olga relaunched her museum, which is now known as MAMM (Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow) – the most dynamic contemporary art space in Russia, which, to this day, continues to attract thousands of curious visitors.
“Our museum holds a history of Russia through photographs,” Olga explained. “The past is reconstructed by these small details.”
photos: 1 – Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images, 2 – Obolenskaya/Shutterstock, 3 – Andrey Bezukladnikov/Facebook, 4 – mamm.mdf.ru, 5 – Ekaterina Anokhina/Facebook, 6 – Arkady Shaikhet/mamm-mdf.ru, 7 – Ivan Shagin/mamm-mdf.ru