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Not just about the pics: Ukrainian immigrant-owned Texas Selfie Museum raises relief money

Earl Hopkins
Austin 360

For the co-owners of Texas Selfie Museum, bringing fun to guests is a brief escape from the harsh realities that face their home country of Ukraine.

With more than 30 photo installations, glimmering backdrops and the face of Bill Murray covering its walls, the Texas Selfie Museum is a spot perfect for Instagram-worthy snapshots, just as co-owners Alex Kurylin, Margaryta Schwery and Igor Benchak envisioned.

"I consider the pictures a good bonus, but we're here to have fun and create amazing memories that you can capture through the lens of the camera," said Schwery, who lives in New Braunfels.

The studio, located at 503 Neches St., is the eighth Original Selfie Museum brand location. Now, its owners are trying to use their business to help out back home.

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How Texas Selfie Museum got started

The company got its start in Denver before branching out to Seattle, Atlanta, Miami, San Antonio and other cities. Kurylin and Benchak managed an escape room in Denver before launching an immersive experience of their own. They were inspired by a similar concept in Singapore, which featured brightly lit rooms filled with locally made paintings that drew eyeballs and camera flashes. 

In 2019, Kurylin and Benchak opened the brand's flagship location and continued to expand the company, later adding Schwery as a partner and overseer of the museum's San Antonio and Austin locations. The latter is the brand's newest outpost.

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"It was a fun process, and we didn't expect it to be big right from the start, but people picked it up pretty quick and then we moved on to Seattle," Benchak said.

Austin is now the group's largest venue by square footage and number of installations.

Throughout the downtown venue, guests will find vintage VHS tapes, bubblegum machines, Neapolitan ice cream-colored fur patches and other visually alluring fixtures. And in a few months, Schwery said, a speakeasy bar will be added to the space. 

Raising money to help Ukraine

Even as their business expands, it's been difficult in recent weeks for the three co-owners, as Russia invades their native Ukraine. 

"It's not a happy place mentally, not for me or any of the partners," Schwery said while holding back tears. She's originally from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. "Even the other partners from other regions, we're all from Ukraine. It was founded by all Ukrainians, and the managers that we have are also Ukrainian, so it's not a happy place in our heads."

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At the start of the war, Benchak, whose family still lives in Odessa, said he couldn't tell his days apart.

Margaryta Schwery, partner at Texas Selfie Museum, poses on April 4 at the business at 503 Neches St. "It's not a happy place mentally, not for me or any of the partners," Schwery, a Ukrainian immigrant, said of running the selfie museum as war rages back home.

"The first two weeks, I was sleeping when my parents slept, and I would wake up at 1 p.m. in the U.S. and check the news sources to see what was going on," he said. "So, when you realize this is happening and it's not going to be over in 10 days, you just find a way to think about doing other things."

Benchak said it was hard to muster up the energy to build up the Austin space. But during that time — and now — the business is trying to be a glimmer of light amid dark times. 

Kurylin, from Kyiv, said he and the other co-owners have donated their own money to support the residents of their home country. And recently, they have started a fund for selfie museum visitors to donate to the cause.

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Visitors can buy an "Annual Selfie Pass," which gives them unlimited access to any selfie museum location with no reservation required. Along with other perks, Kurylin said all membership proceeds will be sent directly to volunteer missions in the Eastern European country. 

At Texas Selfie Museum, visitors will find creative backdrops to take Instagram-ready photos.

"We tried to create something where people do not just donate or send money to the country they've never been to or haven't heard of until recently, but something that would be included in their regular purchase anyway," Kurylin said.

Each membership is $68 per person. Find more details at originalselfiemuseum.com

"We really appreciate that a lot of countries across the world help us, but it's a very hard struggle," Kurylin said. "If you watch the news, it's getting worse and worse every day. So, we're just trying to help."