Remembering Merry Norris, Arts Advocate & Godmother of LA Design

Merry Norris, an arts and architecture advocate based in Los Angeles, passed away on March 16, 2020. As a member of Woodbury School of Architecture’s Board of Advisors, Merry championed public art awareness and design excellence through her many roles as consultant, curator, executive, and public servant. She dedicated her career to the cultural and civic life of Los Angeles and throughout Southern California.

Instrumental in the founding and funding of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Norris also served as Executive Director of Gateway to L.A. In addition to being named an Honorary Member of the American Institute of Architects Los Angeles in 1990, she was the first person in the Chapter’s history to be elected as a Public Member to the Board of Directors of AIA/LA in 1995 and served for 14 years on the Board of Directors. In October 2011, Norris was awarded the Presidential Award as the first “Design Advocate” in recognition for being a “sublime design champion and public arts maverick.”

“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.”


Dean Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter touched on Merry’s impact, stating that, “When I started as Dean at Woodbury School of Architecture, I invited Merry to become a member of our School of Architecture Advisory Board. We were honored when she accepted. In the past two years of serving on our Board, she played an instrumental role. She believed in the mission of our School: that good design is a human right. As a fierce advocate for equity, she had a particular understanding of the challenges our students face. She most recently provided support for our LAUSD initiative where we reached out to local high school students to open up pathways into the architecture profession. She was a passionate supporter of Woodbury’s Julius Shulman Institute, founded by architectural photographer Julius Shulman to introduce the next generation of designers to photography as a vehicle for seeing and improving the built environment. Her support meant the world to our community, and she leaves an unfillable void.”

As one of the city’s first Cultural Affairs Commissioners when she was appointed in 1984, Norris was widely known throughout the city for her open embrace of arts and architecture. She was an enthusiastic supporter and advocate for cultural and civic life in Los Angeles, dedicating a nearly 35-year career to facilitating art and design in the city. Norris led the transformation of many of the city’s public areas with large-scale works and spaces by known and emerging artists, such as converting a freeway-adjacent parcel in Santa Monica into Tongva Park, enhancing the West Hollywood library with major art installations by David Wiseman and Shepard Fairey, and commissioning a mural in Pasadena by artist Kenny Scharf.

As her children Jill Bauman, James Wiester and Joni Martino wrote in a letter this week, “Please raise a glass to celebrate her life – she would want to have a drink with you!”

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