The artist, Tom of Finland (Touko Valio Laaksonen, 1920 – 1991), is from Turku, Finland. Turku has been chosen as this year’s European Capital of Culture and part of the city’s celebrations is a major retrospective of the artist’s work, “Tom’s Coming Home”. Durk Dehner, president and cofounder of the Tom of Finland Foundation (ToFF) in Los Angeles, is now in Europe where the exhibition is enrolling Finland’s conservative populace into finally embracing their native son as one of the most influential, international artists of the 20th century.
Back in the US, Tom’s foundation – ToFF – is seeing the signs of what could be a revisit to the Culture Wars of the early 90s when the National Endowment for the Arts enacted their “decency clause.” Last year, in our nation’s capitol, the first major exhibition to focus on sexual differences in the making of modern American portraiture, had an important work removed from it called for by right-wing conservative politicians and instigated by an individual that had never even seen the installation. It cannot happen in the most creative-friendly city in the world, West Hollywood.
The City of West Hollywood and the Tom of Finland Foundation share the same year they were founded – over a quarter of a century ago. They share a partnership which has allowed the work of hundreds of artists to be seen by thousands and thousands at the annual West Hollywood / Los Angeles Erotic Art Fair Weekend (WHLA EAFW) since 2003.
The Fair has taken place in the city’s West Hollywood Park Auditorium. On Thursday, the City’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission chose not to endorse the 16th EAFW as they have in the past. The Fair has never produced any negative incidents or complaints from the public. The Commissioners who did not vote to support this cultural event in their city did so because of “the children who also use the park,” although they have been assured every year that minors are not allowed entry and that the interior of the festival is very well shielded from even passer-bys.
Tom of Finland’s work was seen by 288,000 visitors to the 53rd International Art Exhibition – La Biennale – in the gardens, the Giardini, of Venice, Italy that host 30 national pavilions. Works by Tom of Finland are in the Art Institute of Chicago which is located in the “Museums In the Park” complex. His work has been shown in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a sprawling park comprised of exhibition galleries, public spaces and gardens. Tom of Finland’s artwork has been seen in the Museum of Modern Art, New York – inside – with its handsome public garden outside. The same exhibition, Compass in Hand, has travelled to the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno in Spain and opens at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, in March.
Marti Pike, ToFF’s Head Librarian, and Sharp, ToFF’s Chairman of the Board of Directors, were at the Commission’s January meeting to answer any questions about the WHLA EAFW the Commissioners may have had. Of the Commissioners not supporting the Art Fair Weekend this year, it was not made known who has attended it, or any of its associated events in the past, although all have received both personal and written invitations, and opening ceremonies are officiated by City of West Hollywood Mayors and Council Members.
Durk Dehner responds:
It weighs heavy on heart that those entrusted with the responsibility to nurture and further cultural opportunities for residents and visitors alike, could fail to recognize history and not be aware of the messages they send forth.
The leaders of the fair city of West Hollywood have taken us rightfully and proudly into this new century and will persist by continuing to welcome cultural diversity.
Narrow-mindedness does not reflect the enlightened citizenry of West Hollywood. Decades of hard work in civil rights has fortified a community in who they are and what they bring to the table. The responsible parents of West Hollywood rear their own with positive outlooks on sexuality. The LGBT community is a strong tribe defined by its sexuality and who expresses it through Beauty and the Arts.
Tom of Finland always knew the messages he wanted his drawings to communicate. It wasn’t until late in life that he realized the magnitude of the power and deliverance that his messages had carried out into the world. As they were absorbed into the culture they released the shackles holding down all who were sexually suppressed. Tom was the ultimate equalizer, determined to provide his brothers and sisters the opportunity to choose their own identity and not one forced upon them by an unaware and unloving society. Freedom: No one else has produced such remarkable changes in western culture through such a simple message in over 2000 years.
While Tom of Finland was altering culture and giving a whole segment of humanity something long denied them, his work was also opening the door for other artists to liberate themselves in who and what they expressed within their works. This was never more eloquently stated than by Harvey Shipley Miller, head of the Judith Rothschild Foundation:
Tom of Finland was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. He drew in values, as an artist superb but as an influence transcendent. What he did was open the doorway, the path for so many to follow by not being afraid of homoerotic subject matter and also the way it was treated.
Tom of Finland was long ago classified as only a “pornographer”; then, “up the ranks” to “illustrator”. Today he is acknowledged as a fine artist who has created more than one master work in his life. As “every artist stands on the shoulders of artists who came before them to see further”, all are served by the artists presented at the Foundation’s Fairs and Emerging Erotic Artists Contests.
The WHLA EAFW, that the nonprofit Tom of Finland Foundation produces, serves its purpose to educate the public as to the cultural merits of erotic art and how it promotes healthier, more tolerant attitudes about sexuality. It serves the Foundation’s mission to encourage the work of artists, regardless of medium of expression, race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, physical or mental disability, medical condition, age, or any other censoring criteria. The Fair serves the design of the Foundation to strongly discourage discrimination against art that portrays sexual behavior or generates a sexual response. Our efforts are supported by the City of West Hollywood’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board.
Tom of Finland Foundation holds all artists to be shaman. They carry and pass on our legacy. They believe they can change the world through what they see. They create work that sometimes questions certainties, even though they know it may be misunderstood or suppressed. Artists must never be shamed or their importance lessened.
The Mayor of West Hollywood, John Heilman, wants to keep the Fair in West Hollywood as do Councilmembers Jeffrey Prang, John Duran and Abbe Land and they have made their intentions known to ToFF.
I understand that this issue is coming up on the City Council Consent Agenda for next Monday. It will be approved unanimously, I anticipate. We will continue to monitor our traditions and cultural landmarks and stand firm.
City of West Hollywood
There is an item on our City Council agenda for Mon., Feb. 7 recommending our support to co-sponsor the Tom of Finland Foundation exhibit. I intend to vote in favor of that item, as I have in previous years when this opportunity has come before us.
I understand the unique place in history that Tom of Finland occupies, and its continued importance to many communities. I have attended the exhibit in the past, and look forward to being there for this year’s event, scheduled for March 25-28.
City of West Hollywood