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Everything Is Bigger in Texas—Including the Art Collections

Dallas Cowboys owners Gene and Jerry Jones built a world-class art collection not for themselves but for 2 million fans.

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It’s October 25, 2015, and Gene and Jerry Jones, the owners of the Dallas Cowboys football team, are having dinner in New York City with their star quarterback, Tony Romo. Midway through the dinner, Gene’s phone rings. Leaving the table and the restaurant, the couple jump into the back of a car waiting outside and huddle around a phone.

On the other end of the line is Gene’s niece, Melissa Ireland, the director of one of the hottest tickets on Dallas’s social calendar: the annual Two x Two for AIDS and Art black-tie gala dinner. As with many galas, there is a charity auction, and the top lot of the evening, Ellsworth Kelly’s White Form, is coming up for sale.

White Form is an austere and cerebral work by the late American colorist. A simple curved relief of aluminum coated in a sheer reflective white paint, it projects from the wall toward the viewer. It’s an experiential piece: To appreciate it you need to move around it, see its depths and shadows, feel its human scale. An art lover’s artwork, it’s the kind of piece that would be a quiet favorite of a museum curator but would attract few crowds. Gene Jones wants to buy it. She has the full support of her husband. “Whatever it takes,” he says, telling Melissa that if they get cut off for any reason, she is to keep on bidding until the piece is theirs. In the Jones family, once you’ve started something, you not only finish it, you finish it right.

A few weeks later, Gene’s wish comes true, as the Kelly, for which she ended up paying $2.3 million, is installed in a prime spot near the entrance to the Cowboys’ stadium. It’s right next to a mesmerizing light piece by Jim Campbell; it’s also near a classic Doug Aitken photo. Around the corner there are important works by Mel Bochner, Daniel Buren, Olafur Eliasson, and Lawrence Weiner. Clearly, the Joneses are contemporary art collectors of the first rank.

But here’s the thing: The art in the Joneses’ Mediterranean-style Dallas villa is largely limited to a small collection of football-themed paintings by Norman Rockwell. For all the money and time they’ve spent on artworks, the Joneses lack the bug that most collectors have, which causes them to accumulate countless works and admire them at home. Instead, they commissioned works that can never be sold and put it all on public view at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys. And in doing so, they have created a private art collection like no other.

The Joneses’ collection, it turns out, is rooted in an intuitive, ahead-of-its-time understanding of where much of the contemporary art world seems to be heading: a focus on large-scale, theatrical, and highly Instagrammable works. And the weirdest part of it—an art collection in a football stadium? But that’s exactly what makes it work.

Among the largest domed structures in the world, AT&T Stadium is a $1.2 billion monument to the Texas-sized ambitions of its owners. Superlatives abound: The stadium hangs from the two largest single-span arches in the world (they’re each 1,225 feet long), and the doors at either end, a mind-boggling 120 feet high by 180 feet wide, take 18 minutes to open or close. Jones works his building hard. The 104 million cubic feet of space under its retractable roof has been filled by concerts (U2, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift), rodeos, monster-truck rallies, wrestling extravaganzas, even a simulcast of The Magic Flute.

And then there are the Cowboys games themselves. To see a home game is an intensely visceral experience: the roar of the crowd; the power of the lights (including the indoor fireworks); the bulk and speed and athleticism and violence of players crashing into one another. All the while, everything is captured on a pair of high-definition video screens 160 feet wide by 72 feet tall. It’s as carefully orchestrated as an EDM track, with periods where the crowd can catch its breath ending in perfectly timed “drops” where 80,000 fans explode in unison. This is sensory overload at Texas scale. And it’s the exact opposite of the quiet, cerebral, contemplative environment that has become the default mode for looking at art.

The story of the art collection is rooted in the story of the stadium itself, which was built in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession. “It makes no business sense, what we did,” says Charlotte Jones, Gene and Jerry’s daughter and global head of the Dallas Cowboys brand, recalling the worst days of stadium construction. “Right as you get going, you unveil it, everybody’s excited about it, and then, bam, the bottom falls out of everything.” Of course the family thought about scaling back, or even stopping: “We were spending a million dollars a day,” Charlotte recalls. “It was a scary time.” But the final decision, from Jerry Jones, was never really in doubt: Construction would continue, grander than ever. There’s a recession on? Sports do great in a recession!

The Jones family was going to create the grandest and glossiest sporting venue in the country. “We could have had a very sophisticated venue for us to play our games in at probably half the investment,” says Charlotte. But then why would the fans drive out to Arlington, when they could just watch the game on their big-screen TVs? Why would anybody at all schlep to the stadium for the 355 days a year when it wasn’t hosting a football game? As Charlotte puts it: “We knew we had to be more than just a sports facility.” The goal wasn’t to build a stadium; it was to create, in Charlotte’s words, “a crazy great experience.”

That’s easier said than done, especially when you’re building a monster stadium in a city with little public transport. The 24,000 parking spaces available are all at ground level, which means tens of thousands of fans do a lot of walking across baking asphalt under an unforgiving northern Texas sun. And then, once they reach the stadium, they face long concrete ramps and steep steps before even getting their first glimpse of the gridiron.

That just wasn’t acceptable to the formidable Gene Jones, a Southern gentlewoman who made sure that if the Cowboys were going to be a family business, then their stadium would reflect the family’s values of generosity and hospitality. So if fans were going to have to walk up long ramps to get to the cheaper seats up top, then they shouldn’t be star- ing at blank concrete walls while doing so. She was going to put great art on those walls and turn something boring into something wonderful. And of course, since the stadium was large-scale and contemporary, the art should be large-scale and contemporary too.

Gene didn’t know anything about contemporary art, but she knew that the right art for a gleaming steel-and-glass modern stadium would be made by living artists. She also was lucky enough to know Gayle Stoffel.

Stoffel, with her husband, Paul, is a textbook example of a contemporary art collector. Walk into her house in Dallas, custom-built to show off the couple’s magnificent collection, and you’re immediately confronted with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of works by Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, and many more.

So when Stoffel told Mary Zlot, of Zlot Buell + Associates, one of the top art advisors in San Francisco, to take Gene’s call, she was fairly blunt: “I don’t do stadiums.” Still, when the call arrived, a few months later, Zlot was polite and professional. But Gene couldn’t answer any of the basic questions that art advisors ask right off the bat: Which artists do you like? What would you like to collect? What’s your budget? All Gene knew was that if she was going to do this, then it had to be done right. For her part, all that Zlot could do was to ask Gene to send over some details about the stadium.

It was only when the information arrived—in a trunk, complete with plans, elevations, virtual tours—that Zlot finally understood just how serious Gene was. Before long, Zlot found herself in Dallas, walking the Jones family through a PowerPoint presentation of artists whom she knew could work successfully at enormous scale. Zlot fully expected the Jones family to take her ideas, commission some works from the artists she had listed, and leave her to her Silicon Valley billionaires. Instead, Gene hired her on the spot.

Zlot’s biggest problem was one the Jones family wasn’t used to: the ridiculously snobbish nature of the art world. You need to be somebody, and Gene Jones, in the art world at least, was a nobody. To make things even harder, galleries are likely to react to the word stadium much as Lady Bracknell does to the mention of a handbag.

So Zlot brought together some of the biggest guns she could find: Stoffel, Dallas mega-collector Howard Rachofsky, and representatives from both the Dallas Museum of Art and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. They all agreed to join a quasi art council that would advise the Jones family.

Another tailwind came from the financial crisis, which might have been terrible for the stadium’s finances, but was a real gift in terms of commissioning art. Galleries tend to lose a lot of their snobbery when they’re not making sales.

The other piece of fortuitous timing was that Eliasson had a show at the Dallas Museum of Art at the end of 2008. The Danish artist had made a huge splash with his Weather Project, a dazzling sun installation at the Tate Modern in London a few years before. Zlot naturally arranged for Eliasson to meet Gene and Jerry Jones, and the next day he was onsite with a hard hat becoming infectiously excited both with plans for the stadium and with the idea of creating art for it. He signed up almost immediately, which helped persuade other artists to join the project.

The logistics were incredibly complicated, but the broad strokes were simple: The art council identified 16 spaces within the stadium that were suitable for massive commissioned works, then asked artists to propose ideas.

By the time the Cowboys played their first game in the new stadium in September 2009, Gene had managed to ensure that all of the site-specific artworks were already in place, spanning most of the biggest interior walls in the stadium. The New York–based word artist Mel Bochner delivered a 1,254-square-foot wall entitled Win!, which he describes as “a kind of mantra for football fans”; it features the exhortation WIN! followed by a series of other encouragements: WHOMP ’EM! SKIN ’EM ALIVE! KICK SOME BUTT! English artist Terry Haggerty delivered a candy-colored, 126-foot-long red-and-white optical wave—at the time, the largest piece he’d ever executed. Gary Simmons’s Blue Field Explosions required the artist, who is afraid of heights, to climb up an open scaffold, clip himself in, and then, in fear and excitement, dance the paint across the deep-blue background with his gloved hands. “It was so emotional, what he was doing,” recalls Charlotte. “It was awesome.”

Most impressively, Weiner delivered a 38-by-33-foot wall piece at the top of one of the stadium’s two monumental staircases. It features a series of phrases in Weiner’s trademark stenciled format: BROUGHT UP TO SPEED; CATCH AS CATCH CAN; BROUGHT DOWN TO EARTH; BROUGHT FORWARD TO A RESOLUTION OF MASS. The phrases, linked by dynamic curved lines, have a particular resonance for football players and connoisseurs of the game—people who generally have more literacy than most art collectors when it comes to diagrams of motion.

Weiner’s pieces are always in the local language, and this one is doubly so: It’s in English, of course, but it also speaks the language of sports. “Football is about mass,” notes Weiner, and his work addresses and exalts the complex kinetic beauty of the game. “The work that I do is the sculptural relationship of human beings to objects,” he says. “You would be surprised how many people whose life work ties in with that relationship get it right away.”

Among those people can be counted Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who has been playing for the team since 2003. “I never really paid much attention to contemporary art, or art of any kind, until the Jones family built the stadium,” he says—but now “it’s something that you notice right away. Regardless of whatever entrance you use to go into the stadium, there will be a work of art that will grab your attention and make you stop and look at it. There is just nothing like it anywhere.”

Even more gratifying for Gene, the fans reacted just as she had dared to hope. There are no ropes in front of the pieces, nothing to stop fired-up crowds from rubbing up against them, spilling mustard and beer all over them, and worse. So far, that has never happened; if anything, it’s art-world sophisticates who are more likely to want to get up close.

Not all the fans love the art, of course, or even notice it—but that’s part of its charm. The stadium is not an art museum, fetishizing its precious objects and reproachingly making visitors feel inferior if they’re not viewing them in the requisite stance of high seriousness. Nor does the art require a lot of knowledge to understand. Nearly all of it is joyful, uplifting.

The cognoscenti love it too: Within weeks of the stadium’s opening, it was solidly on the art-world map. Collectors coming to Dallas and Fort Worth to see the cities’ legendary art collections, both private and public, found themselves making detours to Arlington. Blue-chip galleries started making unsolicited pitches to Gene’s art consultant. And a steady stream of artists, including Pipilotti Rist, Leo Villareal, and Tom Friedman, started joining Gene in the owner’s box to watch a game and better understand the dynamics of the building.

It’s an eclectic group of artists, but they do have one thing in common. The Jones family might not have known much about art when they started, but they knew about showmanship, and in a world where art is becoming increasingly theatrical, maybe that was even more important.

In the art world, the search for buzz and popularity has never been louder than it is today. In that sense, the Cowboys’ art collection is emblematic of a deep structural change in the way that art is produced and consumed. No longer is art walled off in its own middle-brow ghettos; rather, it has become its own spectacle drawing record crowds—whether it’s Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s fun-house-style show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., or Christo’s saffron floating pier installation in northern Italy. After a few barren decades of recondite austerity, art has become fun again: big, shiny, ambitious, spectacular. So why not bring it to the biggest football stadium in the world?

In a purely financial sense, the Cowboys’ collection is about as pure as a private art collection can get, just because most of it can never be sold. Commissioned site-specific pieces are generally more expensive than salable art works, just because they involve that much more work for the artist and the gallery. And yet, if Gene Jones spends a million dollars on such a piece, her net worth has, to all intents and purposes, gone down by a million dollars. In a way, it’s not fair: She’s paying investment-grade prices for pieces that can never be an investment.

At the same time, when it comes to publicity and showmanship, the Cowboys’ collection is leagues ahead of almost any other private collection. The real drive behind it—the thing that keeps Gene growing it, even after all the obvious stadium walls have been filled—is what Stoffel characterizes as “the love of other people seeing art.” Gene gets surprisingly emotional talking about the art in the stadium. “I just fell in love,” she says with a tear in her eye. “Buying it for the stadium, you knew that thousands and millions of people were going to get to enjoy it. I loved how the fans loved it.”

That kind of visibility—being seen by the kind of public that goes to rodeos, rather than just the people who go to museums—is important to the artists too. Teresita Fernández, whose 31-foot-wide, site-specific commission Starfield brings to mind a disco ball flattened by a steamroller, is well known among art-world types. But it’s still very exciting for her to be sitting in a sports bar in Paris and to see her art being featured in a much more popular context. As another artist in the collection, Terry Haggerty, puts it, “you don’t want just ten art people looking at your work in a gallery show.”

The art world, slowly yet inexorably, is beginning to understand the power of numbers. “The art world is a pyramid,” said Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace Gallery, in an interview with Bloomberg last October. “There’s a little tiny group of people on top who buy art, and tens of millions of people who love it underneath. That tiny group on top doesn’t exist without those millions of art lovers. And now, galleries are finally figuring out that we need to tend to those tens of millions of people too.”

Is something lost when art gets this big and this corporate? Many art-world insiders, including friends and admirers of Gene, would say yes to that question. A term often heard is “plop art”: something large and noisy that can be plonked down in a park or plaza in order to make a splash and look impressive, even if it has little intrinsic artistic merit.

But Gene Jones doesn’t see it that way, nor should she. After more than 50 years of marriage to Jerry, she too has become “brilliant at intuiting intangible value, or the value of the intangible,” which is the stadium architect Bryan Trubey’s description of Jerry.

Similarly, after more than 50 years of marriage to Gene, Jerry has become an expert in knowing just what she would want him to say. Last fall, as a couple of art-world types were sitting by the Cowboys’ practice ground and talking about fabrication costs for a major new sculpture, Jerry walked past and said hi. He talked about having made a lot of money from the popularity of football, but also intimated that he was beginning to think that the intense interest in sports might be misplaced. “We take that interest,” he said, “and we redirect it to art.”


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