More than a few eyebrows were raised when Jerry Jones announced two years ago that the Dallas Cowboys’ splashy new stadium would feature a collection of contemporary art. Never known as an art maven and long dismissed in Dallas’s tonier circles as taste-challenged, Jones seemed an unlikely matchmaker for high art and the relentlessly branded NFL culture he has helped create. But when Cowboys Stadium hosts Super Bowl XLV on February 6, fans wowed by the 160-foot JumboTron, twelve-story-tall sliding-glass doors, and quarter-mile-long steel arches will also get a good look at culture’s cutting edge.
Few observers doubt that the $1.15 billion Arlington arena known as Jerry World, where the luxury suites resemble the lobbies of boutique hotels and thousands of flat-panel displays blur the line between a live-entertainment venue and a home entertainment center, sets the bar for twenty-first-century spectating. Far more surprising is that the stadium’s ambitious installation of paintings and sculpture has become a potential game changer for contemporary art. At a time when the avant-garde remains cloistered in galleries and museums and already minuscule public funding for the arts is likely to be picked clean by deficit hawks, Jones isn’t just cloaking himself in the mantle of benevolent patron. He and his wife, Gene, a central player in this project, have given artists and their dealers a promising, everything-old-is-new-again business model—one that resembles, more closely than we’d like to think, the kind of patronage that produced Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
In one sense, this groundbreaking cultural mash-up was simply a case of the Joneses keeping up with their neighbors. For the past decade, Dallas, once counted among America’s most culturally hidebound cities, has been aggressively rebranding itself as a modernist mecca. Leading the way was the late mall developer Raymond Nasher, who back in the seventies turned his NorthPark Center into a showcase for his world-class collection of modern sculpture, then hired Pritzker Prize—winning architect Renzo Piano to design a sublime downtown museum, which opened in 2003. Nasher’s civic largesse has more recently been emulated by several prominent local collectors who pledged many millions of dollars’ worth of modern works to the Dallas Museum of Art. Soon after, a host of affluent locals ponied up more than $300 million to build a sleek Norman Foster—designed opera house and an edgy Rem Koolhaas theater in the downtown arts district.
But if modernism has become a bandwagon for Dallas plutocrats, Jones jumped on it with the gate-crashing impetuosity that characterized his arrival from Arkansas in 1989, when he unceremoniously sacked revered Cowboys coach Tom Landry (and promptly rebuilt a floundering franchise). Nasher was a self-educated collector who arduously acquired his expertise firsthand, building friendships with iconic artists and top dealers and curators. The Joneses have shortened the learning curve by decades, negotiating the art world with the brisk efficiency of a tightly knit family business and the corporate muscle of American sports’ most valuable franchise.
In time-honored Texas fashion, Jerry delegated the cultural affairs to Gene, an experienced arts volunteer and fund-raiser who quickly handed the ball to Mary Zlot, a San Francisco—based art consultant with a roster of A-list corporate and private clients and the clout to sell the Dallas Cowboys to some of the world’s leading artists and their dealers. Just as important, Zlot tapped into the local brain trust, convening an advisory panel of DFW-area curators and collectors that joined several Jones family members in vetting scores of artists’ proposals before commissioning 21 large-scale works.
What might have been a recipe for a bland, creation-by-committee consensus has instead produced a cheeky, in-your-face revisiting of some of art’s most ancient traditions. The Roman Colosseum and Circus Maximus featured painted stucco reliefs in the tunnel-like vomitoria, which allowed enormous crowds quick entrance and egress; the most important works at Cowboys Stadium are similarly integrated with the architecture and located in major crowd-circulating arteries. Visitors who enter the stadium’s main concourse through the Brobdingnagian sliding-glass doors at either end quickly encounter sweeping concession stands whichever way they turn, and the walls that loom over fans queuing up for Kobe beef sandwiches are the setting for works like French conceptual artist Daniel Buren’s 21-by-118-foot Unexpected Variable Configurations: A Work in Situ.
A Golden Lion winner at the Venice Biennale (the art-world equivalent of a Best Picture Oscar), Buren emphasizes just how far the Joneses have ventured beyond the regional clichés, sports memorabilia, and team-themed pastiche that pass for decor in other arenas. The curving wall over the concession stand has been painted Pittsburgh Steelers yellow, divided by a tilelike grid, and punctuated with a random sequence of aluminum plates screen-printed in black and white with the trademark stripes Buren has used to enliven—critics would say deface—public places all over Europe, defusing the high seriousness of both civic architecture and abstract art. In Arlington the ironic interplay of art and edifice is both stark and subtle; the haphazard blacked-out spaces might make us wonder if the building is already falling apart—or merely sending cryptic messages in digital code.
Throughout the stadium, large-scale works, some nearly half the length of a football field, confront visitors with the untamed heterodoxy of today’s art. New York— and Berlin-based Terry Haggerty’s fool-the-eye painting Two Minds appears to billow out over a concession stand in 3-D, giving the illusion of a sinuous sixties op art banner. In one of the monumental stairwells, a multistory pair of murals by another Berliner, Franz Ackermann, echoes the swirling geometric shapes and psychological introspection of early-twentieth-century German abstraction. Pioneering conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s billboard-scale “thesaurus” painting Win! begins with the titular imperative in giant block letters and progresses through increasingly violent synonyms to phrases like “Skin ’em alive!,” a subversive exercise in self-awareness for rabid fans.
Despite the stylistic anarchy, the collection reaches the threshold for any truly substantive public art project: The ensemble exceeds the sum of its parts, giving us an incisive, even biting sense of its moment in history. Here the well-ordered universe pictured in