September 15 2010
Bettina von Hase
Contemporary art collections, both public and private, are often housed in peculiar places. The power station that became London’s Tate Modern comes to mind, or Punta della Dogana, the old customs house converted by François Pinault in Venice. Now there is the Boros Bunker in Berlin. This private collection, housed in a bunker that Hitler had built in 1942 for the protection of civilians, is an exceptional cultural phenomenon, and a draw for international art lovers.
Christian Boros, an advertising entrepreneur with four companies, and his adviser and wife Karen Lohmann bought the bunker from the federal state in 2004 for their art collection. They spent four years converting the massive above-ground fortress into 3,000sq m of exhibition space in 80 rooms on five floors, which opened in 2008. On the roof, they added a spectacular 1,000sq m penthouse for themselves and their young son Anton, five. A highly original juxtaposition of furniture, objects and art within the context of a thrilling building, it is used by the couple as a weekend space and to host functions for visitors.
Born in Upper Silesia (now Poland), Boros moved with his family to Germany when he was six and later studied advertising and aesthetics in Wuppertal. Dressed casually in black, he has a twinkle in his eye. “As a boy, when I saw something interesting, I had to touch it. I wanted to understand the world, to explore it and embrace it, mostly through my possessions.” He collected fossils, coins, stamps and feathers; the first work of art he bought was Joseph Beuys’ Intuitionskiste (Intuition Box). “I am attracted to things I don’t understand, which intrigue and excite me,” he comments.
He started collecting in earnest in 1990. “To collect and to buy art are two different things,” Boros says. “At first I bought art for my flat, then, when I decided to collect and use storage space, I bought nothing but large-scale sculpture for many years. It was Karen who led me there.”
He met his wife 14 years ago, when she was working at the Sprüth Magers gallery booth at the Basel art fair: “There was this woman, a head taller than me, and I fell in love with her.” A month after the fair, Lohmann arrived at his house to install a hanging sculpture by Tobias Rehberger he had bought. “There is loneliness in the decision-making process. I buy art not just with my eyes, but with my intellect. I was longing for a sparring partner,” says Boros. Lohmann’s advisory relationship started there and then; as an art historian and trained gallerist, she transmitted confidence and knowledge, searching for new artists and determining the collection’s direction with him. Persuading him to buy large-scale works was a part of this process; bringing two new elements to the collection was another. “I was interested in design before my husband,” Lohmann says, “and I brought an Asian design aesthetic into the mix.”
Their collection currently comprises about 600 works by 67 artists. Boros is only interested in “art of the present”, as he calls it. “I’m always most interested in the latest works I’ve bought” – currently Olafur Eliasson, Daniel Lergon and Danh Vo. The Vietnamese artist Vo, brought up in Denmark, is a good example of how Lohmann advises the collection. She was interested in his work, whereas Boros was not convinced. “Vo was one of the boat people who fled to Europe. His work is very conceptual; deceptively simple within a historical context. The work I saw was an old saddle owned by a Christian missionary who had ridden through Vietnam on it,” she says.
They missed buying the saddle, but then Boros regretted it, and that led to the purchase of another work by Vo. “Influencing and advising a collection is a long-term process,” acknowledges Lohmann. “My husband had a crisis after our first museum show in 2001. He asked himself, ‘Should we really do this?’ That is the very moment when his proper collecting began. I propelled him to take that step from living with art in your house to building a collection with a dedicated space.”
Boros’s preoccupations have changed over the years. In 1990, he bought Damien Hirst, who was confronting the big themes of life, love, religion and death, which “you think about as a 26-year-old”, Boros says. Now, at 46, he no longer buys Hirst; his collection comprises work by artists such as Elizabeth Peyton (he owns 40 of her paintings); Olafur Eliasson, who is his friend; and, among others, Daniel Pflumm, Ugo Rondinone, Michael Beutler, John Bock, Elmgreen & Dragset, Kitty Kraus, Robert Kusmirowski, Mark Lackey, Manuela Leinhoss and Sarah Lucas. The five floors of the bunker are filled with dynamic works that explore light and the space around them – they were installed by the artists themselves.
Boros and Lohmann are currently thinking about staging a second exhibition, which involves starting with fresh works from their collection. “It’s a huge challenge,” she says. “We have not made any decisions yet, but would like to open in 2011.”
The couple have long discussions before they buy anything. By his own admission, he is more voracious and impulsive, while she is steady and prepared to hold back. “The toughest and most intense debates are when we are thinking of adding another artist to the collection,” Lohmann says. Boros adds: “We negotiate sitting at a table.” He admits to occasionally buying a work his wife disagrees with: “The adviser gives advice, but I don’t have to take it,” he says.
Her taste is more classic modern than her husband’s, reflecting her gallery background, where she was responsible for artist liaison; a mountain painting by Ed Ruscha in their bedroom is testament to her efforts. She buys works on paper for herself, but the large artworks are for Boros. “My husband is a crazy collector. I can let things go, but if he wants something, he gets it.”