Visual arts programs at Virginia Commonwealth University are recognized as pinnacles of excellence not just locally but nationally. Gerald Donato, a professor in the department of painting and printmaking and an aggressive artist in his own right, helped build the art school's reputation for 38 years — from the university's establishment in 1968 (when Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia merged) until his retirement in 2005.
Donato accomplished this student by student, class by class and critique by withering critique. He possessed an immense talent, a relentless work ethic, dark Italian good looks, a mouth on him which he seldom saw fit to filter, real kindness and a deep romantic streak. After a long illness Donato died, appropriately enough, on Valentine's Day, with Joan Gaustad, his wife and a noted painter, at his side.
A week later, on the brilliant sunny Sunday afternoon of Feb. 21, some 225 former colleagues, students, collectors, curators, friends and family members gathered at the arts complex in gritty Manchester, Plant Zero, for a memorial gathering called a celebration of his life.
It spoke to the longevity of Donato's career and the evolution of the community's art scene — of which he played so central a role — that his memorial was held in south Richmond. He was a founding member of 1708 Gallery, the cooperative gallery that he and a number of fellow artists established on East Main Street in Shockoe Bottom when rents were cheap, before the floodwall was built and before the influx of condominiums.
The gallery moved its operations uptown to West Broad Street, where 1708 became a pioneer on a forlorn stretch of streetscape that today plays host to dozens of other galleries. Chances are that Gerald Donato taught many of the artists who exhibit their works there and at other galleries.
At the memorial at Plant Zero, while tributes were being uttered in Donato's memory, elsewhere in the arts complex (and oblivious to the assemblage in the multipurpose room) dozens of other artists probably were at work making art.
Richard Toscan, the dean of VCU's School of the Arts, was the first to speak. He called Donato one of a group of highly talented Richmond-based artists who “painted like they didn't live here.” He credited Donato and his generation of artists who joined the faculty in the late 1960s and '70s with being responsible for building the program's ranking.
Artist Elizabeth King spoke to Donato's work. She made reference to what the late Richard Carlyon, an artist and colleague, called “the delay” when observing a deeply layered artwork: “You think you have the story and then there's something else.”
“We're still looking,” she said of Donato's work, which combined loose brush strokes, both obscure and specific imagery, and fits of whimsy that usually obscured deeper meanings. “Things are still changing,” she said of his work and how it will be viewed over time.
The VCU painting and printmaking department chairman, Richard Roth, described Donato's work as ranging from “high to low, funny and ironic, and standing against all that is pretentious and pompous.”
Former student Heide Trepanier, one of Richmond's leading artists, called Donato gifted and generous. She said he possessed the quality that makes for a brilliant professor: “They lead, they never direct.”
Donato's niece, Lisa Donato of Indianapolis, said her uncle gave her and her brother their first exposure to art. “He taught Danny and me a different way of seeing the world,” she said. “He was an out-of-control role model.”
Others were more blunt, calling Donato “in-your-face” and always making “X-rated wisecracks.” But the outpouring of affection for the Chicago-born, Illinois- and Wisconsin-educated, swaggering artist, was proof that often staid Richmond embraced Donato as much as he graced his adopted city. As one person in attendance was overheard saying, “God, I loved that man.”