San Francisco philanthropist and art collector Norah Stone dies at 81

Norah Stone, pictured in 2012 in one of her closets at her San Francisco home. Photo: Russell Yip / The Chronicle

Norah Stone, a widely admired cultural philanthropist and art collector known for her flamboyant sartorial entries on social occasions, quietly made her last outing when she passed away early Friday, September 6 at California Pacific Medical Center. Her death, after a months-long battle with cancer, was confirmed by her husband, Dr. Norman C. Stone. She was 81 years old.

Stone was a director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for 10 years, among other charitable activities. Joined by email on a trip, Museum Director Neal Benezra called her “an accomplished collector and connoisseur, an inspiring woman with incredible personal style, a true friend to so many and a brilliant mind in all our lives “.

“Very simply,” he said, “he was a remarkable human being.”

Stone was born Norah Sharpe in Alberta, Canada on August 6, 1938. She studied nursing at the University of Alberta and worked as a surgical nurse at several Bay Area hospitals, then graduated graduating from San Francisco Law School, becoming Senior Counsel at Pacific Telesis Group in San Francisco.

In 1967, she supervised the first volunteer nurses at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics and had held volunteer positions at the Child Abuse Prevention Center in San Francisco, NARAL, and other health-focused organizations. In art, in addition to her support for SFMOMA, she has served on the National Committee of the Whitney Museum and the International Council of Tate.

Norah and Norman Stone chat inside Davies Symphony Hall as they celebrate the 2012 San Francisco Symphony Opening Gala. Photo: Alex Washburn / Special for The Chronicle 2012

Norah was introduced to Norman Stone in a life-changing 1984 blind date, according to a 2012 profile in The Chronicle. “When they first met, Norah assumed he was broke because they were walking everywhere,” Carolyne Zinko of The Chronicle reported. After dating for a while, he revealed he was the son of wealthy insurance mogul W. Clement Stone. They married in 1986, together beginning to build a collection of contemporary art that has garnered them international attention.

Along with Norman, said Benezra, Norah “was a passionate supporter and generous donor of the museum. His legacy includes works by artists such as Matthew Barney, John Baldessari, Joseph Beuys, Jeff Koons and many more. She chaired the committee to celebrate the expansion of the museum in 2016, among other activities.

Norah and Norman Stone at the 2014 San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Opening Night Gala. Photo: Alex Washburn / Special for The Chronicle

Norah credited Norman with her interest in fashion, and the two have been a very visible, if not idiosyncratic presence together at cultural events for many years.

The late Wilkes Bashford, a prominent clothier, told The Chronicle: “Only people as confident as they are can dress the way they dress without it giving the impression that they are trying too hard, or as if it were a thread… on them, it is a natural and authentic way of dressing.

Norah Stone wore a spider-shaped fascinator during the 2015 San Francisco Ballet Opening Night Gala. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

In a phone interview, Norman made it clear that Norah’s style is only part of her personality.

“She loved to connect people and help people,” he said. “It was a part of her. She did it in a way with intelligence and humor. She made it fun.

“She transformed my life,” he said. “She introduced me to a Buddhist practice that we both followed. She is part of me, something that I feel in my heart chakra.

Stonescape welcomes Norman and Norah Stone in front of their art cave. Photo: Catherine Bigelow / Special for The Chronicle

Every year for more than a decade, Artnews magazine has ranked the Stones among the top 200 collectors in the world. In Calistoga, the Stones built a second home outside of San Francisco that includes what they called an “art cave,” with 5,000 square feet of galleries for their extensive collection carved into a hill. The property, which they named “Stonescape”, features a swimming pool designed by James Turrell which is also a stunning art installation.

Once every two years, the Stones throw a big private party for friends from the art world. Next year, Norman said, “there will be another one, conceptualized by Norah. “Women matter”, all women artists. He said he would not hesitate to move forward with the event. “It was Norah’s plan.”

Norah Stone is survived by three siblings, Ted Sharpe, Linda Smiley and Ronald Sharpe, all of Alberta, Canada; three daughters-in-law from a previous marriage, Megan Neal, Diane Phillips and Nancy Lambert; four stepchildren by marriage to Norman, Amy Tingley Stone, Mark Stone, Bryan Stone and Norm Clifford Stone; and seven step-grandchildren.

A private memorial is planned. Instead of flowers, the family suggests donations to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Norman and Norah Stone at their San Francisco home. Photo: Russell Yip / The Chronicle
Norah and Norman Stone in Calistoga during their Stonescape art event in July 2013. Photo: Catherine Bigelow / Special for The Chronicle
Norah Stone poses for a photo at the 2015 San Francisco Symphony Opening Gala, wearing Jonathan Cohen from New York City. Photo: Alex Washburn / Special for The Chronicle
Norman and Norah Stone at the 2015 San Francisco Ballet Opening Gala. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle
Norah and Norman Stone in January 2018. Photo: Catherine Bigelow / Special for The Chronicle

Norma D. Ross