Now I hope the reader will click on the links above to read more about the one and only Jerry Donato, as his art is worthwhile and he is an interesting character. Since no one is better known in Richmond’s art in-crowd, his opening will no doubt be packed. Shows of this size and importance, three floors of art, are unusual in Richmond.
Orginally from Chicago, Donato taught fine art at VCU from for 36 years. Jerry, in the ‘80s a regular at the Happy Hour gatherings in the Power Corner of the much-missed Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe, once helped me out with an unusual project of mine. He agreed to appear in court as an expert witness.
So, rather than go on to heap yet more praise on Donato the artist/teacher, as the two articles already do a fine job of, I’d rather tell a quick story about Donato, the world class wiseass.
In a Richmond, Virginia courtroom 25 years ago I witnessed an entertaining scene in which an age-old question -- what is art? -- was hashed out in front of a patient judge, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the parade of exhibits and witnesses the attorneys put before him. The gallery was packed with art students wearing paint-speckled dungarees, gypsy musicians and film buffs.
The defendant was this story’s teller. At the time I was the manager of the Biograph Theatre. When I got charged with a misdemeanor for posting a handbill I had designed promoting a midnight show, it was a bust I deliberately provoked. At that time I was determined to beat the City of Richmond with a freedom of speech defense.
At the crucial moment Donato was on the witness stand. As an art expert, he was being grilled over just where to draw the line between what should be, and what should not be, considered as genuine art. The Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney asked the witness if the somewhat beat-up piece of paper in his hand -- the offending handbill for a flick called, “Atomic Cafe” -- could actually be “art.”
“Probably,” shrugged the prof. “Why not?”
The stubborn prosecutor grumbled, reasserting that the flyer was no more than “litter.” Still, my attorneys continued to stand on the notion that I had a right to post the handbill, and that the public had a right to see it, too.
Eventually, having grown weary of the high-brow, artsy vernacular being slung around by the witnesses supporting the defense -- we also presented a display of about 100 different handbills, mostly for bands playing at clubs -- the prosecutor tried one more time to trip up the clever witness.
As Warhol's soup cans had just been mentioned, the lawyer narrowed his eyes to ask, “If you were in an alley and happened upon a pile of debris spilled out from a tipped-over trashcan, could that be art, too?”
“Well,” said Donato, pausing Jack Benny-like for effect, “that would depend on who tipped the can over.”
Donato’s line went over like Gangbusters; the courtroom erupted into laughter. The obviously amused judge fought off a smile. The prosecutor threw up his hands and sat down.
Moreover, the prosecutor’s premise/strategy that an expert on art could be compelled to rise up to brand a handbill, a green piece of paper with black ink on it, as “un-art” was absurd. The City of Richmond lost their case that day.
Note: “Gerald Donato: Reinventing the Game” at the Anderson Gallery, 907½ W. Franklin St., opens Jan. 26 (reception 7 p.m. - 9 p.m.) and runs through Mar. 4.