A massively influential figure for generations of young men looking for positive queer role models, Tom of Finland contrasted a reality of discrimination by creating his own, egalitarian utopia—one of unabashed sexuality and liberating humor, that subverted power structures. Today, the House he opened in Los Angeles is an archive, museum, and LGBTQ+ community space—sign up for a book club, sex parties, and now a touring exhibition in Venice and Paris.
PHOTOGRAPHY: JOSHUA GORDON INTERVIEW: ANASTASIIA FEDOROVA
ANASTASIIA FEDOROVAI’d like to ask you a little bit about the Tom of Finland Foundation and “AllTogether,” the exhibition you curated together with Paris-based non-profit The Community, which showcases the Foundation’s extensive collection of LGBTQ+ art. But first, could you introduce yourself?
DURK DEHNERSure. My name is Durk Dehner and I am the president and Co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation.
S.R. SHARPI’m Sharp, the Vice-president and Curator at the Foundation.
AFAmazing. Thank you. So I think for those who might not be familiar with the work of the Foundation as a whole, maybe you could tell me a little bit about your work and the legacy of Tom of Finland?
DDSure. I met the artist Tom of Finland in 1978, and I was hosting him here in Los Angeles for his first exhibition in America. So I got to know him a little bit better. And what I experienced were two things. One was how big a fan base he had and how important he was for several generations of young men who were looking for positive role models, and weren’t finding them within the queer culture at the time. We were always depicted in a very negative and demeaning light. I realized that he was more than just a good artist, he had actually changed the culture. Then I decided that it was time for me to do something for him, and so I sort of tried to find out what was on his bucket list. He wanted to stop piracy. So what we did was open up a company together. We started publishing his own work so he could have control over it and get the money from it. That happened in 1980, it was called the Tom of Finland Company. Another thing that was on his bucket list was to have an archive. So in 1984, we incorporated a non-profit and it was called Tom of Finland Foundation Incorporated. It was originally meant to preserve and protect his work. And soon thereafter, because of our social relationship with Los Angeles and other artists, artists who were friends started to ask whether they could actually donate a work or two to the collection. Tom and I had a conversation about it and we decided that of course we have to open it up to others. Then very soon after that the AIDS epidemic hit us. We were given a lot of our artwork from artists who were dying, and we were also given their archives. So it grew quite fast. We got established and collectors left their works to us, sometimes 500 works from a collection. So the variety of artists that we have in our collection is quite broad.
SRSI think on Tom’s bucket list, was to make a fine art book.
SRSSo now there was also a non-profit entity and Tom was very hands on with the first edition, which was creating a fine art publication. It was certainly a dream of Tom’s.
DDSo it was called Retrospective (1988). And we self-published it and distributed it worldwide. And it sold 40,000 copies.
AFAre there any selection criteria for the work which you collect, or is donated, and which works do you choose to archive?
SRSI don’t think that we deliberately position ourselves to censor anything. That’s not really our job as archivists—it is not to place value on the works. There’s an enormous amount of social value and historical value and because we’re at this point in history and who knows what will happen next? We try to be as broad as we possibly can in terms of technique, and in terms of time periods—everything has value.
“So many artists were directly influenced by Tom of Finland. It’s interesting to see the way every artist stands on the shoulders of artists that came before them.”
DDWe are an archive because what we are doing is documenting different eras of time within a culture. But we’re also a museum, which means that we actually select what we show on our walls and also what we have sent to Europe. For the upcoming exhibition, we worked together with Paris-based organization The Community, they came and explored the Foundation. I opened up as many drawers and books as I could. And they had their wish list. So collectively we came up with what we think really shows the past and the present. Like nowadays, we’re nurturing artists in residence here, and they usually give us one of their works when they leave.
SRSWe also have had many emerging erotic artist contests and we wanted to make sure they were represented in this exhibition [in Venice]. We were able to call upon many artists. And I think that most artists have created an erotic doodle, at some point in their lives! Our idea with the contest is to attract these people. People who’ve never shared their erotic work with anyone, maybe even their friends haven’t seen it. They may be from a remote part of the world, but the thing is we try to draw these people out so they can share their ideas, their artwork, and their unique fantasies too. We’ve had an enormous response and lots of submissions that we had to go through. We also wanted to make sure some emerging artists were shown in this exhibition as well 8 May 2022 we will be announcing our next Tom of Finland Emerging Artist Competition from Paris.
AFAnd what was maybe the most challenging or the most interesting part of working on the exhibition? Especially considering it’s outside of the United States and in a completely different context, how did you feel picking works for that?
SRSI think it’s the job that we always do. We curate exhibitions here at the house, which could be themed, in fact usually they are themed. Sometimes they have to do with the time period or a country of origin. And I think the hardest part is trying to reduce it to a number that could be exhibited. That’s always the toughest part.
DDIt’s hard to actually leave artists out because you have this kind of friendship and attachment to the works and often for who made them, and so you want them to have this opportunity. When we started to receive all of these different works in the Eighties, one of our dreams was to exhibit this collection along with Tom. Because people felt, even back then, that they might not be remembered, but Tom of Finland Foundation would be remembered. And so they were hoping that by attaching themselves to us, their body of work might surface in the future. There are artists in this exhibition who are well-known today and making a living off their art work, and there are artists that many people don’t know.
SRSIt was great having new eyes with The Community looking at our collections. They were able to come here and go through a lot of material. It’s so often about the artists, their relationships, how they came to be at the Foundation, and which other artists they knew. And so it’s about building relationships between the artists and the conversations between the artists literally, and also figuratively, appear on the walls.
DDA lot of them have amazing back stories and they are going to be available for the viewers so that they can get more out of the experience.
SRSAny institution showing artwork can let the artwork speak for itself. Or it can be infused with a great deal of historical and biographical context. It’s about how the two are woven together. I mean, there are some very specific examples of artists who were directly influenced by Tom of Finland. And it’s interesting to see the way every artist stands on the shoulders of artists that came before them. Also Tom gave permission to so many contemporary artists to use the sexual in their work. That permission alone is had an enormous influence and how artists take that, how they work with it, is interesting. Like with Heather Benjamin, it’s a very personal experience, a very personal tale that she’s putting down on the paper. She creates a persona who is very much what she wants to project and identifies with.
DDYou know, there is actually a French photographer in Paris who I hope will come to our opening, her name is Rachel Laurent. She came to an opening at a gallery where we were exhibiting Tom’s work. She was beaming. I asked her, “Would you be willing to share what’s going through your head?” She responded, “Here are the works of a man that did not inhibit what was in his heart. He represents freedom for all of us.” And I think that she really hit it on the head. That’s what artists really get, one of the main things that they get from Tom is to be free.
AFI think you probably partly answered already, but I also wanted to ask you what do you think is the political significance of showing erotic work, collecting erotic work, and creating space for it. Why is it especially important today to keep doing that?
SRSLet’s talk about Tom. He was creating his own world, his own utopia. He saw injustices and discrimination in the real world and he didn’t see any reason for them. So it was not a part of his world. It was completely free. It was a complete utopia. It was very egalitarian. Everyone was having a good time and it was reciprocal, healthy, outdoors, and robust. I think he was creating a world as it should be. I think people found that so appealing. Lots of men started acting like that, and going to the gym to look like that. Then taking it all to the streets. So it was an artistic world that had real-world ramifications. It became real and genuine. When queer men sought liberation politically, they had a sound background of self-awareness, of self-esteem. They were infused with power in a sense of belonging. And they were able to take all of this confidence with them to the streets.
DDIt was like he sort of became our daddy in that he was the one who gave us the things that were needed in order to become fully grown and well-adjusted. I don’t want to focus just on him because this exhibition is very important for me personally as this is the first time that we have been able to actually send a survey of what we have in our collection out into the world.
AFAnd what kind of experience would you like people to have when they come to the exhibition?
SRSIt is joyful. During COVID since we weren’t open, we had an occasion to go through, catalog, repackage, reexamine. Work on our storage area. We had artwork all over the house and on big tables. We were doing conservation reports and reexamining so much of what we had done. Cataloging things that hadn’t been cataloged. It was just like going to a party and seeing old friends. You said, “Oh yes.” Then you’re remembering the stories. It’s very intimate and personal. So they are old friends and it gives us enormous joy for us to share them. People simply having a good time and enjoying themselves. I mean, there’s humor in unabashed sexuality and it’s very liberating.
DDI want to make sure that you know a little bit more about the Foundation, and that we’re an archive and a museum. We’ll give tours to the public once COVID is under control. And, like I said earlier, we have artists in residence here. We have two right now. One is from New York and one is from Warsaw. We also have a drawing class, and we do an art and culture festival. We have an emerging artist competition, and we put on exhibitions that travel, and now is the time to really let some of these artists shine, because they’re masters in their own realm.
AFWhat kind of community do you have around the Foundation in L.A.?
SRSWell, we are membership-supported and volunteer-driven. With COVID, we haven’t had all of our volunteers here, and they’re very important to us. Volunteers help with our fundraisers, in our library, with our archive—they do all sorts of things. We also have community meetings here and different organizations that meet here, like the L.A. Band of Brothers.
DDWe’ve had tea parties. Rick Castro would host a Wednesday afternoon tea party, and talk about all things creative. We host other events here, including a book club.
SRSSometimes there are sex parties.
DDThey turn into that, yes. We have a wonderful outdoor area, and it just seems to happen. The artists that come for residencies here find a place in the garden, and they make that their studio, and they just go and work there for three months.
SRSThe whole social experience of sharing art and having people’s reactions to it and artists coming face-to-face with prospective patrons and buyers is an extraordinary experience, and we certainly foster that with our art and culture festivals. Many artists may work in small, remote areas. They are thinking about how to have a web presence and follow the rules on social media. But here there is an opportunity for the artists to actually stand with their work face-to-face with the public. How they’ve learned to react or respond to that is very important. We’ve also had seminars on artists creating a business of their own. Ultimately, I think the social interaction that takes place around art is so exciting and so important.
DDFor them to meet each other is really a moment for bonding. It happens at our festivals, but I watch it happen here with the artists who are in residency, in that they just naturally find a place where they meet, and they really get close here. But we have a beautiful bouquet of visiting artists from L.A. who come, and they’ll have dinners here, they’ll participate, and continue to participate in the life of the Foundation.
“Lots of men started acting like Tom’s characters, going to the gym to look like that, taking it all on the streets. So it was an artistic world that had real-world ramifications.”
AFYou’ve obviously seen a lot of erotic, or different kinds of art, on various sexual topics over the years. Do you think the new generation, or the artists working today, have a different attitude to things like sexuality, the leather community, or kink?
SRSStarting with Tom, I think he had a very specific reaction to work that was considered pornographic. In his world, there were no tops, and there were no bottoms. It wasn’t defined by any of these stigmas that even the queer community placed on itself, the holdovers from Greco-Roman times. Somehow it was more superior, if you will, to be at the top, right? But “Oh, I don’t suck dick. I don’t get fucked,” wasn’t part of Tom’s world at all. He was flipping and obviously playing with power, but everybody was reciprocating and having a good time. I think that he has certainly permeated the work that we’re seeing today. There is no harm in not attaching anything to it that we don’t want to. We’re not replicating heteronormative scenarios, we’re creating our own scenarios, our own scenes, and I think, if anything, we’re actually seeing much more reciprocity, we’re seeing much more refusal to define specific roles, exploring different roles.
DDA lot of love is being expressed through it. Coming back to Tom, he objectified cops, and made them pinups, sex objects, and that actually had an impact on the way that gays viewed police, because they used to be terrified of police, and it diminished that kind of power that police had over gays.
SRSSubverting power structures.
DDGood. One of the things that we do here at the foundation is really giving our visitors the experience where they can touch things, or they can get up really close, hear a back-story on a work.
SRSWe’re taking the experience here at TOM House, that’s what we’re taking to Venice and Paris.
AFI guess Tom’s work is mostly connected to the gay community, but its impact was much broader. Do you also collect and exhibit LGBTQI+ artists of all identities and genders?
SRSOh yes, of course. We’re very inclusive, and as I said, we don’t have any censoring criteria, and it certainly doesn’t affect who we collect. We have works by everyone across the spectrum.
DDThe thing that I want to say is that when we started, our doors were always open to any artist that was doing erotic art, and we would assist them. But we don’t purchase art, it has to be donated, so it really depends on who is giving.
SRSWhat is important to know is that we operate without an acquisition budget. So, everything that you see here and in Europe is either a donation from the creator or from a collector.
AFDo you have any artistic highlights in AllTogether? Although I can imagine it’s a tough job to choose...
DDOh, you mean special work? Oh, we can’t say. No, no.
SRSThey’re all like our dear children. You can’t pick a favorite child.
DDBut make sure you touch the butt.
SRSYes. Touch the butt, yes on the Marcello Lupetti sculpture.
AFDo you have any dreams about how you’d like to develop the foundation in terms of exhibitions abroad? Do you have any exciting plans?
DDWell, it is my dream that we are prosperous and that we actually open up satellite offices in different places like Berlin or Paris. That we have artists in residence from here going there so that they get to experience a different culture, and also it is so beautiful flowing back and forth. I want to go to Prague and Eastern Europe and really present works in places where it’s not so easy to be queer. And I’m also hoping that this exhibition, that these two exhibitions, will be the starting point where other museums will say, “Let’s check this out. Let’s go and see what they have.”
SRSThere are so many expressions of ourselves that can’t be hidden anymore.
Tom of Finland is the artist name of Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen (1920– 1991), who has established worldwide recognition as a master of homoerotic art.
Established in 1984 in Los Angeles by Durk Dehner with the purpose of preserving Tom’s vast catalog of work, the Tom of Finland Foundation (ToFF) has since been dedicated to promoting and nurturing the erotic arts.
“AllTogether” is a group exhibition of erotic arts curated by the Tom Of Finland Foundation and TheCommunity—currently on view through 26 June at Studio Cannaregio, Venice, and at The Community Centre, Paris.
Anastasiia Fedorova is a writer and curator based in London.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOSHUA GORDON CREATIVE DIRECTION: ALESSIO ASCARI IMAGE COURTESY OF THE TOM OF FINLAND FOUNDATION TOFF , LOS ANGELES.