For four decades, Merry Norris hustled to raise the profile of Los Angeles’s cultural community—founding the Museum of Contemporary Art and successfully shifting the architecture and design world’s center of gravity away from New York City.
“I like to make things happen,” she told Curbed in 2017.
Norris died on Monday, her daughter, Jill Bauman, confirmed, as a result of health issues exacerbated by pneumonia. She was 80.
“Merry was the godmother of arts and architecture in Los Angeles for 40 years,” says architect Barbara Bestor. “It is because of her work and tireless championing that LA has come to be realized as the cradle of creativity and cutting-edge work in America.”
Norris was an ever-present fixture at gallery openings, design events, and architecture happenings across the region. Her signature style was as eye-catching as the art she collected: dressed head-to-toe in prerequisite black, draped in whimsical accessories, with an asymmetrical bob that tucked around her chin like a piece of site-specific sculpture.
“When you arrived at a reading or opening or panel discussion and saw Merry, you knew you were in the right spot,” says Christopher Hawthorne, LA’s chief design officer and former architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times. “More than anybody else I can think of she somehow made LA feel like a small town—a chic and innovative small town, run by artists and writers and architects, but a small one all the same.”
After working as a docent at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Norris studied interior design at UCLA in the 1970s, plucking works from local galleries for her clients. She soon pivoted to art consultant, championing a then-renegade roster of artists and designers, like painter Ed Moses and architect Frank Gehry, who ended up becoming world-famous.
“There were about six collectors in LA at the time,” she told Curbed in 2017. “People didn’t know what to do, how to go to galleries, where they were, how to act, or what questions to ask.”
Her close connections to those influential artists led Norris to become one of the chief fundraisers for the institution what would become MOCA, cementing LA’s role as a hub for modern art. Norris’s work included helping to secure the Grand Avenue address for the celebrated postmodern campus designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Arata Isozaki.
Norris was also instrumental in founding another Downtown institution, the ground-breaking architecture school SCI-Arc, where she had served on the board of trustees since 1987.
“She approached everything with wonder and enthusiasm—she loved the world and the people in it,” said architect and fellow SCI-Arc trustee Thom Mayne in a statement. “I will never forget her face, her smile, her joyful and contagious irreverence.”
In yet another role as cultural affairs commissioner for the city, Norris changed the way LA designed public buildings. By enlisting architects, Norris oversaw a revamp of the city’s design standards, resulting in transformative civic landmarks such as the Central Library expansion in Downtown, and contextual neighborhood outposts like fire, police, and water and power stations.
“Merry was a relentless champion for powerful civic architecture that reflected the unique and local character of the community where it was located,” says Deborah Murphy, an urban planner who worked alongside Norris during her time at the city. “She made sure every building was worthy of being built in our great city, and more specifically, in the community where it was built.”
In more recent years, Norris advised cities on how to lure art out out of museums and galleries, tapping emerging artists and designers to collaborate with architects in creating public installations for plazas and parks. One of her most notable projects turned West Hollywood’s library into a street art destination with building-scale murals by David Wiseman and Shepard Fairey.
“She recognized architecture as an art form, promoting LA architects and schools such as SCI-Arc, and brought art, everything from high-end to amazing street art, to institutional architecture and public art projects—by any means necessary,” says Bestor.
Norris’s own home, tucked into a Hollywood Hills canyon, features an art collection to rival any gallery in town, with pieces from notable local artists including Jenny Holzer, Mark Bradford, Ed Ruscha, and Iva Gueorguieva, as well as works from architects like Mayne.
Known for her sometimes-raucous parties—which often fundraised for local nonprofits— Norris was an effortless host for bold-faced names of the LA art and architecture world who gathered eagerly around her sparkling pool.
“Given the current state of the world, we cannot set a date yet for her memorial service,” reads a letter from Bauman, and Norris’s two other children, James Wiester and Joni Martino, who note that donations can be made to SCI-Arc’s Merry Norris Scholarship Fund at SCI-Arc or the Merry Norris Creativity Fund at Imagine LA. “Please raise a glass to celebrate her life,” the letter says. “She would want to have a drink with you.”