Left: The European Kunsthalle site, Cologne. Right: Nicolas Schafhausen.

Last week I took the morning train to Cologne. On the new high-speed line, the trip from Frankfurt only takes an hour (you feel like you’re playing some kind of virtual-reality game), and I didn’t even manage to finish reading the newspaper before I had to get off and attend to the strange question: What can you do with a hole in the ground and half a million dollars? That’s what Nicolaus Schafhausen, the newly appointed director of Cologne’s as-yet-unbuilt European Kunsthalle, has to figure out. (I was a member of the jury that picked him, so you can blame me if it turns out to be a failure.) What should the art institution of the future look like? It’s a question that is usually discussed in very abstract terms. With this new kunsthalle, Schafhausen—ex-artist, ex-dealer, director of Frankfurt’s Kunstverein for the past six years, and one of Germany’s most efficient art catalysts—has a chance to realize an entirely new model.

Cologne’s disastrous cultural politics have recently led discontented local artists to take action. A few years back, the city decided to make way for a grand new arts complex by tearing down the Josef-Haubach-Forum, a building that housed two important institutions, the Kunstverein and the kunsthalle. Many members of Cologne’s art community opposed the plan, but the building came down anyway, in December 2002. The only problem was that the city couldn’t actually afford to build the complex, and, as various municipal bodies tried to settle on a downsized plan, the giant hole left by the demolition seemed destined to become a permanent feature of the landscape. So artists Rosemarie Trockel and Marcel Odenbach, along with a group of like-minded colleagues, got busy, founding the organization “Das Loch e.V.” (The Hole Association) in order to present alternative ideas for what should be built at the site. The European Kunsthalle is their brainchild—now they (and Schafhausen) just have to figure out how to fund it and who should build it. In October 2004 they organized an art auction and managed to raise €355,000 ($468,000): Among the artists who donated works were Trockel herself and Gerhard Richter, whose small painting Ohne Title brought €115,000 ($150,000).

So what is Schafhausen going to do? Arrange seminars in the hole? Perhaps, but not just that—and he doesn’t see raising millions or signing up a relevant architect as his primary tasks either. Rather, in his new capacity he sees himself primarily as a provider of ideas and a facilitator of new connections; for example, the Ludwig Museum has expressed interest in collaborating with this new organization. Who knows, maybe the homeless predicament will turn out to be an asset. There are art institutions that manage very well without a permanent venue for shows: ArtAngel in London, Museum in Progress in Vienna, and Milan’s Trussardi Foundation, for example. But comparisons to other institutions only go so far. “This kunsthalle is unique,” says Schafhausen. No one can deny that.