Though 1984 is oft considered an important year for Los Angeles, it was also a significant year for the city’s biggest public art advocate, Merry Norris.
LA’s brand-new Museum of Contemporary Art, which she was helping build from scratch, was taking shape in its permanent space on Downtown’s Bunker Hill. The colorful exuberance of the Summer Olympics put LA in the global spotlight right as she was appointed to lead the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission. And 1984 was also the year that Norris found her remarkable home.
High ceilings and total privacy were what Norris initially had in mind when she started looking for a house, envisioning herself in one of the famous modern residences in the Hollywood Hills. She never expected to fall in love with a home only a handful of years old. But when she stood in the skylight-crowned atrium nestled into a pine grove high above the Sunset Strip, she just knew. She immediately crafted a strategy to outbid competing buyers.
Norris’s visitors are similarly entranced by her home. It’s not only because the breeze beckoning from the backyard draws them through the house and along sandstone floors gently cascading down to a glistening pool. Norris has taken this bright, blank canvas and layered it with many, many pieces of art collected over a number of years. She has essentially curated her own living museum, and every piece has a story that connects it to LA’s ever-changing art world.
After working as a docent at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Norris moved to Los Angeles, where she studied interior design at UCLA. She found herself buying art for her clients, which, in the 1970s, was something people flew to New York to do.
“There were about six collectors in LA at the time,” she remembers. “People didn't know what to do, how to go to galleries, where they were, how to act, or what questions to ask.” Norris set herself apart by buying locally and ended up championing a game-changing, yet still nascent, community of artists who eventually became world-famous. “I was absolutely committed—and still am—to Los Angeles,” she says.
Just because her walls are hung with original works by Jenny Holzer, Mark Bradford, Ed Ruscha, and Iva Gueorguieva does does not mean Norris’s home is overly fussy. Even the rare design pieces are available as seating—including two prototypes of Frank Gehry’s iconic cardboard wiggle chairs. Every surface not reserved for art is stacked high with art books and well-read design magazines.
And it’s easy to spot Norris’s wit shining through in tiny moments of whimsy all over the house: Guests who use her powder room, for example, are greeted by a tableau of dozens of faces—numerous Jacob Hashimoto paper pieces floating on the mirror—staring back at them.
She’s also not afraid to put the art to work. A set of steel pieces, designed by architects Thom Mayne and Michael Rotundi (then partners at Morphosis) for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, were installed to create a sculpture garden in the backyard, but two of them are also used as tables on the pool deck. They’re the perfect height for holding a cocktail.
Although at home in the art world, Norris’s work has always straddled the architecture world—which is why she’s being honored with a special award from the architecture school SCI-Arc this Friday. “Most of my best friends are architects,” she says. “That level of intelligence just intrigues me.”
While at LA’s Cultural Affairs Commission, Norris saw the importance of overseeing not just art but urban design for the city. She brought in architects to advise the commission during the approval process for all buildings built on or over city property, essentially transforming LA’s civic landscape.
Norris is perhaps best known for her own contributions to the public realm—bringing art out of museums and galleries and into LA’s streets and plazas. As a public art consultant, she’s transformed a freeway-adjacent parcel in Santa Monica into an oasis at Tongva Park; turned West Hollywood’s library into an Instagram destination with major art installations by David Wiseman and Shepard Fairey; and tapped street artist Kenny Scharf to paint a parking garage in Pasadena.
At home, she’s still adding to her collection. She rotates her pieces—some of which are currently on loan to museums—from room to room, rearranging sculptures to suit her mood or welcome new acquisitions.
“I’m still a gallery girl,” she says. “I go to galleries and I like to buy my art from the galleries—not from the artist, and not online.”
From her home office on the second floor—which looks out into a palm-fringed canyon—Norris continues her role as an educator, an ambassador, a tireless booster of Los Angeles’s now-booming art scene. She’s played an influential role in the way the city’s artists and architects have been received worldwide.
But she’s also changed the city from within by bringing art into the LA communities that need it most. “‘Sharing’ is the way I like to think about it,” she says. “I like to make things happen.”