Merry Norris, a powerhouse in the Los Angeles cultural community and cofounder of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, died Monday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at the age of 80. The cause of death was pneumonia, according to an obituary in the Los Angeles Times.
Norris was one of the first heads of L.A.’s Cultural Affairs Commission, having been approached about the role in 1984. From the position she exerted an immense influence over the city, from its cultural institutions to its iconic skyline. Standards of design were paramount to Norris, who lobbied the city government for a graceful architectural landscape and waged—and often won—battles against developers who proposed what she once described as “buildings that were, quite frankly, hokey.” She enlisted renowned and emerging architects, transforming routine projects in L.A.’s gritty downtown into civic landmarks, such as the Central Library’s celebrated expansion.
As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1992, “The commission, which has final design authority over all projects on or over city property, long had a reputation for passivity. Norris transformed the group into an activist board that raised the standards for design.”
Norris got her start as a docent at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, afterward enrolling at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1970s to study interior design. Down the line, Norris pivoted to art consultation, championing artists such as painter Ed Moses and architect Frank Gehry among the city’s nascent collector scene.
After assuming the presidency of the Cultural Affairs Commission, Norris began in earnest on her passion project: giving downtown Los Angeles a first-rate arts venue. The downtown Community Redevelopment Agency offered a site on Bunker Hill if she could raise the necessary funds.
Described as a magnetic and unflappable personality, Norris proved an apt fundraiser, bringing in $13.5 million. “People were so hungry for this,” she told KCRW journalist Frances Anderton. In 1986 MOCA opened its postmodern campus designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Arata Isozaki.
Until her death Norris was notable for her presence at openings for exhibitions and for mentoring on development. She was also instrumental in founding the influential architecture school, SCI-Arc, on whose board of trustees she had served since 1987.
“Merry was the godmother of arts and architecture in Los Angeles for 40 years,” architect Barbara Bestor told Curbed. “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.”