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 stained glass and sculpture in a Gothic cathedral is a thing of the distant past; Jerry World is ruled by random events and capricious fate. In Line of Play, New York—based Englishman Matthew Ritchie, a student of both modern physics and game theory, computer-scrambles a coach’s x’s and o’s diagram into Jackson Pollock—like skeins and then blows them up into intricately cut-out, painted aluminum forms, as if illustrating how a simple plan can explode into a tangle of unintended outcomes. Denton artist Annette Lawrence’s Coin Toss, a minimalist vortex of silvery, 45-foot stretched-steel cables spanning a VIP entrance, appears to change form and substance as we pass beneath it, a graceful metaphor that goes beyond pregame ritual to suggest how quickly twenty-first-century fortunes can spin out of control, not just on the field but in our winner-take-all culture and casino economy.

In an age when venerable institutions are either failing or are too big to fail (football dynasties falling into the former category), the art also provides a wink at the stadium’s chest-thumping scale and triumphalist steel-truss arches—architecture that in past centuries might have been decked out with king-size portraits of emperors or dictators. Despite a dependency on well-heeled patrons, contemporary art is inherently antiestablishment in content, and works like Buren’s and Bochner’s openly mock both the building’s hubris and the American cult of football. The result is an intriguing psychological study of a twenty-first-century patron. Roman emperors erected Olympian statues of themselves, while a Renaissance benefactor might have insisted his new altarpiece picture him kneeling at the cradle of Jesus. But today the bigger the ambition, the more heartily it is required to poke fun at itself, even in mid-striving—witness all the politicians who now ritually abase themselves before Jon Stewart and David Letterman. Self-deprecation is the new self-deification, and Cowboys Stadium offers a fascinating portrait of the Emperor Jones, one eye on the stars and the other winking at us, a reminder that in the end it’s only a game.

Cowboys Stadium isn’t the first of the nation’s recent bumper crop of publicly financed sports stadiums to be festooned with contemporary art. The Seattle Seahawks’ Qwest Field, which opened in 2002, features the work of a dozen mostly regional artists. Nor will it be the last. Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who made his fortune as an art dealer, will spend millions in public money to trick out his new ballpark. (Miami mandates that a small percentage of construction costs of publicly funded buildings go toward purchasing art, a program that didn’t exist in Arlington, where Jerry picked up the bill.) But Cowboys Stadium’s sparse regional and sports-related references, the international stature of the artists, and the tight integration of large-scale, museum-quality art with utilitarian modern architecture (something modern architects have been loath to permit) make it unlike anything else in the field.

Instead Cowboys Stadium bears a more instructive comparison with Texas’s most venerated works of public art, Houston’s Rothko Chapel and Donald Judd’s Marfa Project (now the Chinati Foundation). Both projects were funded by Houston’s de Menil family, the legendarily acquisitive collectors who were often likened to Renaissance Italy’s proverbial patrons; in 1986 the New York Times dubbed them “the Medici of modern art.” Matriarch Dominique de Menil and her children cultivated their sensibilities so assiduously and spent so avidly that they eventually became tastemakers rather than mere consumers, fostering an austere, minimalist style that continues to ripple through high and popular culture.

The Joneses, of course, will never be in the same league as the de Menils—but that’s precisely what makes Cowboys Stadium so interesting. In one respect the de Menils were little different from the generations of great philanthropists—the Rockefellers, Gardners, or Mellons—who founded so many of America’s cultural institutions: They maintained an almost constitutional separation between their cultural monuments and the often sharp-elbowed commerce that made their generosity possible. Inspired by Ray Nasher’s shopping mall precedent, the Joneses instead built their collection into their place of business. But unlike Nasher, who carried on a decades-long love affair with art, the Joneses acquired their collection with strictly-business expedience, employing the sort of fast-paced, consultant-driven decision-making that has become routine in our entrepreneurial economy.

That’s where the art world can learn something from the Joneses. We have come to idealize our modern Medici without understanding who the historical Medici really were: greedy, sometimes brutal oligarchs whose patronage was more concerned with promoting the family brand and banking interests than creating something for the ages. Jerry Jones, whose aggressive marketing and nosebleed pricing have earned the enmity of everyone from the NFL’s old-boy owners’ club to working-class Dallas fans (in a national poll last year, Jones was named the fourth-most-hated figure in sports), is far more in the mold of a Medici grandee than was Ray Nasher or Dominique de Menil, both of whom coupled their collecting to a progressive social and political agenda. But great patrons don’t need to be commercially disinterested connoisseurs, much less princely fellows; they just need to hire great artists. It’s the artist’s job, not the patron’s, to change the world; Renaissance artists-for-hire literally humanized the culture of Europe, making man the measure of all things and setting the stage for centuries of democratization and scientific progress.

It says something about the power and persistence of art that almost half a millennium after the worldly Medici popes patronized Michelangelo and Raphael, collecting contemporary art still distinguishes the with-it rich from all those run-of-the-mill billionaires. And it says something about the state of public support for the arts in this country that the entire annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts is less than half the $325 million that Arlington taxpayers anted up to lure the Joneses into their neighborhood. As puny as it is, the NEA budget provides perennial low-hanging fruit for budget cutters and has already received threats from the tea partyers in Congress.

So what might be called the Jones model offers a compelling formula for keeping culture’s cutting edge keen in an era where the public is slashing its expenses and the rich are getting richer. The notion of a vast, consultant-packaged public art project fitted out to a wealthy neophyte’s specifications like the interior of a Gulfstream jet might offend both purists and populists, but it’s a much more effective way of spreading around arts dollars than a handful of collectors bidding up auction prices for a handful of living icons to heights once reserved for Impressionists and old masters. A project like Cowboys Stadium offers artists a dramatically expanded new audience, made up of many people who are reluctant to set foot in an art museum; the eight home games the Cowboys play between September and January draw nearly as many visitors as the well-attended Dallas Museum of Art does over the course of an entire year. If even a fraction of the Forbes 400 were to get into the art game with half the audacity and business acumen of the Joneses, we might well see a day when the American public values public art enough to actually pay for it.