Merry Norris, force in L.A. art and architecture, dies at 80

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Merry Norris was a longtime board member at SCI-Arc, which honored her at their Main Event in 2017. Image courtesy sci-arc.edu

A swirl of sculpted white hair, a ribald laugh, a daring outfit and eyeglasses — that was Merry Norris, the private art consultant and longtime public advocate for art and architecture in Los Angeles.

Norris died Monday night from health issues exacerbated by pneumonia at age 80, leaving behind a city she had played a very large role in shaping.

Her list of achievements is extensive. She helped found the Museum of Contemporary Art and was involved with the creation of Santa Monica’s Tongva Park and the adaptive remodeling of the LA Central Library. Norris was one of the city’s first Cultural Affairs Commissioners, bringing in architects of note to help elevate the city's design standards. She was an early and indefatigable board member at SCI-Arc; and she supported the LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design.

With her efforts, she helped propel the careers of numerous artists and architects, respecting both groups equally, while building her own impressive art collection.

Merry Norris talks to former MOCA director Philippe Vergne and Veridiana Pontes at the opening of a Jacob Hashimoto show at MOCA Pacific Design Center in 2014. Courtesy MOCA. 

Norris got her start working as a docent at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. "She studied interior design at UCLA in the 1970s, plucking works from local galleries for her clients," writes Alissa Walker of Curbed. "She soon pivoted to art consultant, championing a then-renegade roster of artists and designers, like painter Ed Moses and architect Frank Gehry."

Then came MOCA.

In the 1970s, Norris was going to New York a lot because, "I was becoming a passionate collector", she told me during the editing of a book about Bunker Hill in 2011. "New Yorkers were saying that nothing is happening in LA and you don't even have an institution that shows contemporary art.  I thought, 'Couldn't we put something together?'"

She joined forces with downtown power-brokers — her then husband, Judge William Norris, was friends with Mayor Tom Bradley — and artists including Moses, Tony Berlant, and Robert Irwin. Then, she recalled, the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency, "wrote Bill a letter saying, 'We'll give you the land on Bunker Hill if you can raise enough money to prove there is community support for this.' And that's when I became a fundraiser."

Merry Norris, left of picture in white jacket, and a group review plans for Tongva Park, designed by James Corner Field Operations, Santa Monica, 2012. Courtesy City of Santa Monica.

Norris said she and Gary Familian co-chaired one fundraising camp; and Eli Broad and Andrea Van de Kamp helmed another. Together they raised $13.5 million. "People were so hungry for this," she told me.

Early ambition for a Kunsthalle-type art space in a gritty downtown structure evolved into a plan to build a new museum — and Japanese architect Arata Isozaki was hired to design it. "Isozaki is a terrific architect, but what I mainly remember were the endless arguments about the parking," Norris told me.

When the museum opened in 1986, there was an opening every night for five nights —"five nights, five outfits," she recalled with her signature laugh.

And that was one of the charms of Merry.

Norris was a passionate devotee of what might be called "high art," but she had none of its pretensions. She was fun (as her first name suggests), loved parties, had an endless enthusiasm for the latest in art and design and architecture, and attended more events in an evening than most people half her age.

And she did not mince words. She has called me over the years to express concerns if she saw standards dropping in civic buildings, or to tell me about the great projects her children, Jill Bauman, James Wiester, and Joni Martino, were involved with. She has given me smart parenting advice and she has told me to stop flipping my hair.

Merry Norris and KCRW's Frances Anderton at an opening reception for Chuck Moffit at the Eric Buterbaugh Gallery, August 2016. Photo credit: Eric Minh Swenson for Eric Buterbaugh Gallery and Blackman Cruz 

"Befitting her intelligence and presence in the art world, she was a woman of strong opinions, always expressive and much beloved by Angelenos who expected a lot from their city," says the architect Scott Johnson.

Architect Thom Mayne called Norris an important member of Los Angeles' creative world. "She approached everything with wonder and enthusiasm," Mayne said via an email. "She loved art and architecture, and she loved and supported the people who created it. We were so lucky that she turned her attention to our project at SCI-Arc when she did. I will never forget her face, her impish smile, her joyful and contagious irreverence."

"I adore[d] Merry Norris," says brand consultant Darren Gold. "One of the first times I really got to know Merry was on a tour of all the art at the new Andaz hotel, a project she was very proud of, and happy to talk about again and again. I was immediately struck by what a cool lady she was. I will always remember being at any art or design event in LA where I just didn’t want to talk to anyone and then sighing in relief when I saw Merry walk through the door. We had so many good times together. Merry loved her champagne and loved to keep the party going way after it was officially over. In that vein, Merry’s legacy will go on for a long time to come."