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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

In the Moment: Ellison as Connoisseur

June 26th, 2013 by Peggy Aycinena

This morning, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum previewed their newest exhibition for the press, In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection. It opens to the public on Friday, June 28th, and is well worth a visit.

Yes, Mr. Ellison is the fifth richest person in the world and clearly we all know he’s spent a lot of that wealth on real estate, airplanes, a variety of things that float, and  most recently in reconfiguring the San Francisco waterfront in anticipation of the upcoming America’s Cup event.

What is less well known is that Ellison has also converted a portion of his wealth into art – art from Japan specifically, some of it many centuries old. It’s that collection, or a small part of it, that’s currently on display at the Asian Art Museum across the plaza from City Hall in the heart of The City.

Now, if you are skeptical about the timing for this exhibition, you would not be alone. Ellison’s Oracle Team USA is currently the reigning America’s Cup champion and comprises fully one-quarter of the field set to compete over the next several months as the legendary racing event unfolds in the waters of San Francisco Bay. What better time to showcase Mr. Ellison’s good taste in art than when his good taste in catamarans is also on display?

However, if you can put aside your skepticism, if you can put aside everything you think you know about Mr. Ellison – the saga of his little software company, the endless acquisitions, hostile and otherwise, the endless litigations, the endless turmoil over things that used to be open source, but may no longer be, the decades of bad vibes out of his Emerald City that sits on the fringe of Silicon Valley – then you should take the time to go see In the Moment. Because in the category of experiencing things that are timeless and breathtakingly beautiful, this is somewhere near the top.

In three shadowy, hauntingly lit galleries, you will encounter screens, and scrolls, and sculpture, and lacquerware, and ceramics that will break your heart with the stillness and elegance and historical poignancy of it all. Particularly when you learn that the concept at the center of this exhibition is the idea that art is In the Moment. That art displayed needs to respect and speak to the time of day, the season of the year, and the shape shifting of sensibilities over a career, a lifetime, and the temporal span of a culture.

Which is why the works of art in this exhibit are not about Japan; they are about Larry Ellison. There’s something so terribly wistful in all of it. That a man, even the fifth wealthiest on the planet, cannot stop the march of time, cannot stop the world from changing around him, cannot go back to an earlier era when unbridled power was expressed not through big jets and colorful wind foils that pass themselves off as racing boats, but by the ability to create perfection – perfection in color and hue, in workmanship, in scale and proportion and composition, in delicate brushstrokes and bold imagery of animals and birds and flowers and the wind and The Buddha.

This is a dynamic and powerful exhibition, and one that demands that you come alone. You have to sit in each gallery and consider the origins of every piece, the historical context within which it was created – and there are many on display – and the reason that its current owner decided to add it to his collection.

You also need to contemplate the fact that his now full-time employee, Emily Sano, previously was Director of the Asian Art Museum but today focuses her efforts on seeking out and procuring additional pieces for Mr. Ellison. The synergy between Julia Morgan and William Randolph Hearst is not too grand an analogy to draw here, or contemplate, when you visit the exhibition.

So go. Go see it. Go see what wealth can do. Go see what artisans and shoguns and dreamers can do. But most of all. Go see what software can do. Go see what owning a few lines of code and finding a few people willing to pay for it can do.

In his wildest imagination, William Randolph Hearst could not have conceived of such a thing. That level of wealth. That level of hubris. That level of joy.


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