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Merry Norris. Courtesy of Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Merry Norris (1940–2020)

Merry Norris, a staunch advocate for the arts and a cofounder of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MoCA), died on Monday, March 16, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at the age of eighty. According to the Los Angeles Times, Norris’s daughter confirmed that the cause of death was pneumonia.

“Merry was one of the few people in Los Angeles who was really dedicated to supporting culture and the arts in all of its forms—including architecture,” architect Thom Mayne, a founder of the LA firm Morphosis, told the Los Angeles Times. “She was in love with the arts and the people who created it. She was devoted to supporting it in a difficult city.”

Born Merry Wright on February 26, 1940, in Rochester, New York, Norris relocated to the Pasadena area of California with her family as a teenager. She enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, but left school to start a family after she met and married Gerald Govan. However, the union only lasted two years, and in 1964, she married her second husband, John Wiester, and resettled in the Santa Barbara area.

Norris forayed into the arts in the 1970s when she began working as a docent at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. She went on to study interior design at the University of California, Los Angeles, and then shifted to arts consultancy. A champion of artists and designers such as Ed Moses and Frank Gehry, Norris became involved in LA MoCA through her third husband, William Norris, who was the institution’s first board president. She served as acting director of development during the construction of the museum’s Grand Avenue building and helped raise funds for its endowment. 

The arts patron was also one of the main supporters of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where she had served on the board of trustees since 1987. “Her generosity and passion for SCI-Arc and the arts was unparalleled,” SCI-Arc director Hernán Díaz Alonso said in a statement. “Over the years, her contributions have made her inseparable from what SCI-Arc is and will continue to be. We will miss her deeply.”

In 1984, Norris was invited to join Los Angeles’s Cultural Affairs Commission. While she was not sure what the agency was responsible for when she accepted, she soon became the commission’s president and helped define the purpose of the organization, which had the authority to approve the final designs of buildings planned for city properties. Through her work for the city, she raised the profile of design and shaped the city’s aesthetics. Though she often found herself at odds with developers, she influenced projects such as the expansion of Bertram Goodhue’s 1920s Central Library.

“Merry was the godmother of arts and architecture in Los Angeles for forty 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.”

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