SAN FRANCISCO HAS NEVER struck me as a hotbed of artistic conservatism, but this axiom surfaced over and over again at the fete celebrating Norman and Norah Stone’s biannual rotation of their collection at Stonescape, housed in a bright, white cave tucked into a voluptuous hill in Calistoga, California.
“Everything that comes to San Francisco dies,” whispered someone as we stood inside the cool cavern. “The city is ruled over by the same five families that all live within blocks of each other—old money, old art. We need the Stones.”
The Stones are a famously zany San Francisco couple with a collection seen as at once sexy and politically astute, which makes them a sort of paragon of artistic radicality in Northern California. Their collection rests on an empire based on positive thinking. Norman’s father, a textbook Horatio Alger, began hawking newspapers on the streets of Chicago in the 1920s before selling insurance door-to-door. Decades later, his company was worth billions and he had written three books about the power of optimism. He then became a primary financial backer of both Richard Nixon’s presidential campaigns. His son, however, whom I encountered flipping through vinyl records at a heavy wood table set up like a DJ booth (Theaster Gates’s Listening Station), took a slightly different route.
“Vietnam—it changed everything. I was working at a private equity firm with war-related investments—I couldn’t do it anymore,” said the septuagenarian, sporting a flowing paisley shirt and long beaded necklace. “I quit and went back to art school. But you see, I’m a people-pleaser, which is not a good thing for that line of work. So I decided to become a psychologist.”
As waiters in white urged guests—Josephine Pryde, James Turrell, Leigh Ledare, Aaron Betsky of the Cincinnati Art Museum, curator and former Jumex Collection director Abaseh Mirvali, and Dallas collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky, among others—to please join for dinner, I came upon advisers Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner, who have worked with the Stones for the past twenty-five years.
“It all began with a work by John Baldessari,” said Westreich with élan. “We knew it was the right work because it was conceptually profound, but more so, because it was provocative on so many levels.”
Wagner smiled at his wife. “Doors get knocked down with those guys,” he remarked. “They are oblivious to what their neighbors think; they dress the way they want to dress, buy art nobody else here does. They’re very democratic, which is one thing in New York but another in Pacific Heights. The city might seem liberal, but the money is conservative.”
At dinner, two art students debated terms more generally associated with historic San Francisco with LA MoCA board chair Clifford Einstein and his wife Mandy. “A beatnik is a more serious individual. Poets. Lived in places with friends. A hippie is like a nouveau burner,” argued Clifford.
“So, a beatnik is basically like a hipster?” asked a student with a goatee. At which point Norah picked up a microphone and invited the two hundred attendees to gather under the Turrell pavilion for a performance by Theaster Gates and his band, the Black Monks of Mississippi.
“The relationship between collectors and artists is sometimes about objects but a lot of times about friendship,” said Gates before beginning his forty-minute set. “What we will sing tonight is a reflection on race, on humanness. This one is called ‘The Glorious People.’ ”
“To kill a man in a hood . . . the sun and the moon, they both were there,” Gates began. It was guttural music. The light became electric yellow, turning a woman’s neon orange platforms a pale white. A man with a cello leapt from his seat, hoisting his instrument over his body and plowing into its thickest strings as the light went blood red. Gates was roaring then, and the Turrell had turned a fierce shade of blue.
The music broke. For a moment everything was still, until a man in the audience began to howl and the crowd broke into shrieks. The musicians left. They did not bow. There was no encore. That same night hundreds of thousands across America had taken to the streets, protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman and honoring the death of Trayvon Martin.
“Now that is the way music is supposed to be—a lament to our time,” remarked a museum director matter-of-factly. His comment hit uncomfortably on the dicey relationship between artist and collector, the way visibility cages its maker behind a looking glass. It was fitting, I thought, that the Stones’ fourth exhibition is about portraiture. “Revealed,” they’ve called it.
In the distance, a sharp black-and-white mural by Rirkrit Tiravanija was visible from the glass doors of the art cave. The moon was almost full. You could see the faces of so many protesters, which Tiravanija had selected from newspapers and instructed students to draw across the walls. I wandered past a grove of ancient redwoods back up to the space. Inside, San Francisco collector Abigail Turin and her husband, SF MoMA board member Jonathan Gans, stood next to a circle of Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale chairs.
“They’ve completely changed the direction of our collection—they take risks no one else will,” said Gans.
Behind the couple was a remarkable Anne Collier photograph of a single blue eye, staring unflinchingly from its frame.
“I have never seen one like this,” said Turin. “The Stones find the best works.”
As they departed, I spotted Norah standing alone, most of her guests now splashing about in the Turrell-designed pool. A black fur was pulled around her shoulders—in the Napa Valley, temperatures can sink by forty degrees after sunset—and she was taking in a Ryan Gander photograph of a nude young woman with soft, full curves.
“Thea nearly fell to her knees when she saw it. And Norman, he didn’t even think about it, he just said yes,” she said. “Ryan was going to come tonight, but he had to be on the East Coast. And if you know his history, the wheelchair—it’s a very touching work.”
Slashed in red letters over the image is the phrase: I WANT TO THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT WHAT I CAN ACCOMPLISH WITH WHAT IS LEFT OF THE REST OF MY LIFE.