It’s a quarter past nine in the evening when Christian Boros slides open the large wooden door that separates the penthouse he shares with his wife, Karen, and 8-year-old son, Anton, from the five floors of exhibition space below. The residence is light and airy, clad in glass in the mode of Berlin’s recent architecture, but the private museum occupies a heavy concrete structure that was built as a bunker by the Nazis. It served as a storage facility for tropical fruit for the elite when the section of the city where it stands was under East German control, then became home to a techno club after reunification. Boros opened the 30,000-square-foot, 80-room exhibition space in 2008.
“Sorry I’m late; Wolfgang just finished installing the last photo,” he says. Christian is referring to Wolfgang Tillmans, who was on hand to assist with the installation of 38 of his own works—some of which picture the building in its party days— as part of a new presentation of the couple’s formidable collection of contemporary art that is to be unveiled in early fall to a gathering of the artists and a few close friends.
Comprising 101 pieces from their current holdings of roughly 700 works, it is only the second installation at the bunker. The rehanging had been expected to come much sooner. “After a year or two, we wanted to change the exhibition because we are so proud to have wonderful works,” says Christian. “But then we thought, why? It’s not about showing power or how big our collection is.”
Even after four years displaying the first exhibition, which featured 110 pieces and was seen by more than 120,000 visitors, Karen says there was a tremendous public outcry via e-mails and phone calls when they announced it would come down. The couple acknowledge many more would have been able to visit the space if not for their strict appointment-only policy, necessary because of the 12-person occupancy limit placed on the building. The limit was imposed because they didn’t want to disrupt the rooms with exit signs.
One reason the first exhibition stayed up for four years was that many of the works required intricate planning and construction to show in the first place. “People told us we were crazy to remove some pieces,” says Christian. “Works like Monika Sosnowska’s black lightning bolt [Untitled, 2005/08] and Santiago Sierra’s Layered Tar Forms  were so difficult to install. It took one month just to take them away.”
The couple didn’t let the challenge dissuade them from including complicated installations in the new hanging, however. Ai Weiwei’s Tree, 2009–10,one of a pair seen at Berlin’s Neugerriemschneider during Gallery Weekend 2011, proved the most difficult. “To install a six-meter-tall tree in the middle of a bunker where the doors are only one meter wide, it was necessary to cut out ceiling sand walls, which we then had to close back up and paint over so that you wouldn’t know,” says Christian, pointing out that the work’s upper branches come within inches of the walls. Diamond tipped saw blades aside, the placement of that particular piece was further complicated by the couple’s stringent policy that the artist must personally install his or her work in the bunker. The creative problem-solving to get around Ai’s current Chinese government-imposed travel restrictions ultimately involved Skype and a trip to Beijing made by the Boroses last February to meet with the artist.
If the second hanging differs markedly from the first, it’s in the more introverted mood of the works on view. Many large installations are again in the mix, but there is less flash, and the works don’t give themselves over to the viewer as easily. Pieces like Klara Lidén’s Teenage Room, 2009, a uniformly black ensemble of charred bedroom furniture, replace shiny paintings and installations by Anselm Reyle, who figured heavily in the first show. Olafur Eliasson, a Boros favorite with more than 30 works in the collection at large and 14 in the first show, has only three pieces in the second hanging. His brass-and-mirror Orientation Star, 2009, is paired with and reflects Colour Experiment No. 10, 2010, while Driftwood Family, also from 2010, spreads out from the doorway of one room, as if a 100-year flood has managed to penetrate the bunker’s nearly 10-foot-thick walls.
Other contemporary stars like Elmgreen & Dragset, Sarah Lucas, and Rirkrit Tiravanija have been swapped out for a new generation of largely Berlin-based artists. “Four or five young artists are featured very prominently: Thea Djordjadze, Alicja Kwade, Lidén, Michael Sailstorfer, and Danh Vo. They’re not the youngest in age, but for us they are the most contemporary,” observes Karen. Sailstorfer’s Forst (“Forest”), 2010, featuring trees hanging upside down and rotating so that their tops drag on the floor, joins Ai’s Tree and Eliasson’s driftwood in something of an arboreal leitmotif in the stark space. Kwade’s Der Tag ohne Gestern (Dimension 1–11) [“Day Without Yesterday”], 2009, takes up nearly half of one floor. In this piece, small speakers placed at the apexes of smoothly curved, black varnished-steel segments of varying heights play back sounds made by visitors in the room, creating subtle reverberations throughout an ever-changing installation.
The generational shift might be chalked up in part to a rule that Christian established for himself long before the couple met. “We only buy works during the year in which they were produced. It’s about buying a piece of the present,” he explains. “I wouldn’t buy a drawing by Elizabeth Peyton from the ’90s now [he owns 40 of her paintings] or one of Olafur’s pieces from 2000. If we missed it, it stays missed.... I can see those pieces in a museum.” Their latest acquisition, The Line of Fire, 2012, by the Welsh/German duo Awst & Walther, was purchased practically as it was being conceived. According to Christian, Benjamin Walther was installing what was to be their only piece in the new bunker exhibition, Latent Measures, 2011—a single brushed-metal tube that snakes through six rooms, passing through the concrete walls—when the artist saw a hole in an exterior wall of one of the rooms. When Christian came downstairs to check on Walther’s progress, the artist pitched his idea of extending the hole all the way to the street and fabricating an arrow that has seemingly pierced the art fortress. The collector couldn’t resist.
Christian’s desire to hew to this rule of staying current eventually led him to sell the first artwork he ever purchased, Joseph Beuys’s Intuitionskiste (“Intuition Box”), 1968, bought in 1982 with money Boros’s parents gave him for a car when he turned 18. As he sees it, the collection began in 1990, when he was studying design in London, through a chance late-night conversation with Damien Hirst. From a shared taste for clubbing the discussion turned to aesthetics, leading to a studio visit during which, Christian says, he fell in love with the artist’s work. The dot painting he purchased there, one of the very first ever produced—and perhaps more remarkably, one of the only examples by Hirst’s own hand—now hangs in the Boroses’ foyer. The price? “It was a lot for a student but nothing compared with today,” Boros says with a laugh, going on to describe how, after a bit of pandering to Hirst’s sympathies for a fellow student and lover of the arts, he persuaded the artist to give him a second painting for free.
While you won’t see Hirsts in the public floors of the bunker—Christian isn’t keen on the artist’s commercialization—that doesn’t mean the couple have lost interest in their early purchases. A trio of mural-size photographs from Thomas Ruff’s “Sternbilder”(“Constellations”) series, 1990–92, feature prominently in the second exhibition, in one of the bunker’s few two-story-tall rooms. “The works are parts of our biography now,” says Christian. “He’s a friend. Our children play and we go on holiday together.” Later, while walking through the bunker, Karen looks back and forth from Ruff’s to Tillmans’s works and notes, “Its quite surprising we have two artists who work with photography in the new installation. They’re the only ones we have in the whole collection.”
Though there are only the three Ruffs on view, the Tillmans selection could be a museum retrospective. The two-floor presentation ranges from several important works from the photographer’s “Lutz&Alex” series taken in the early ’90s to Anemone II from 2003.The depth of the holdings reflects a commitment the couple make when they buy a first work from an artist, a commitment to see his or her practice through and continue to invest in the artist’s ideas.
Some might call the Boroses out for being too Berlin-centric in their acquisitions, but the attraction has nothing to do with provincialism. “I think a lot of it is what their work is about, what questions they ask,” Karen says. Christian concurs, calling Berlin “one of the few cities in the world that aren’t finished developing. In London or New York, it’s quite a closed society, but in Berlin there are still empty chairs. I love artists that are interested in this process of change.”
It’s that atmosphere of possibilities that drew the couple themselves to the German capital. In 2003, already envisioning an exhibition space, they purchased the bunker from the state, which had repossessed it from the club operators. The family began using it as a weekend house as they prepared the first installation, but until 2010 they continued living in Wuppertal. That Rhineland city close to Düsseldorf, where Christian moved at the age of six from Poland, is where he founded his eponymous strategic marketing firm, in 1990. Happily coinciding with his personal interest in art, the company counts the Venice Biennale, Art Cologne, the Lempertz auction house, Art Berlin Contemporary, and many of Berlin’s galleries among its clients, while Coca-Cola, 3M, and Viva (the German answer to MTV) top the list of other longtime customers. His publishing house, Distanz Verlag, founded with Art Now author Uta Grosenick, has produced catalogues and monographs for artists such as Jenny Holzer, Boris Mikhailov, and Rosemarie Trockel.
Karen’s personal and business interests are similarly intertwined. Since 2005 she has served as the head of German VIP relations for Art Basel, while continuing to manage a family-owned real estate business. She trained in art history and psychology in Australia and Cologne, where she worked for a time at the Aurel Scheibler gallery. It was 14 years ago, while employed as an artist liaison at Sprüth Magers’s former Cologne location, toiling in the gallery’s booth at Art Basel, that she met Christian. “It was necessary to buy an Ed Ruscha painting to meet her. It was a very expensive first date,” quips Christian. The painting, which Karen notes is not at all in keeping with her husband’s taste, now hangs in their bedroom. “Every morning I wake up and say, ‘Thank you, Ed,’” Christian adds.
Save that one purchase, you won’t see the couple opening their wallets at art fairs. “When you go to a fair, you buy brands,” says Christian. “You have three minutes to speak to the gallerist and one minute to think about if you want a work or not. I want to understand the work, how artists think. I want to speak with them. I want to drink wine with them after seeing their exhibition. It’s very important that we speak a lot with the gallerists as well, because they teach us.” Johann König, a favored gallerist of the Boroses, agrees that such conversations benefit everyone involved. “We seriously discuss each acquisition,” says König. “He’s not a spontaneous buyer, but he makes serious decisions on artists and then makes it a team effort among himself, Karen, me, and the artist to figure out what makes sense for the collection. Sometimes we even decide that a work doesn’t make sense at all.”
One such team effort involved Sailstorfer’s Forst. “I always thought it would fit really well in the bunker,” says the artist. “When Christian bought the first piece [Zeitistkeine Autobahn] (“Time Is Not a Highway”), 2008], we weren’t in touch, really. But since, he has asked me a couple of times what pieces I think would fit well in his collection.” Sailstorfer points to his three kinetic works in the new hanging, which all engage with the bunker. “The tree is very natural within an unnatural space,” he says. “The popcorn machine is really childish, giving off this happy smell, but placed in an aggressive environment. Then the tire really matches the bunker, also emitting a smell, but of burning rubber.”
Would Christian start it all again from scratch? He goes wide-eyed at the notion. “No, never!” he exclaims. “If I knew the problems, the costs, the time, I would be completely afraid. It took five years and all of my hair.” Yet at this point, Boros says the process of learning about and collecting the art of the present will end only when he is dead. Asked where he will display all the new works too large for the bunker, he offers, “This is not the last building I will buy.”
This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Art+Auction.