TOM OF FINLAND FOUNDATION
AN ART THEFT
WHERE WE’VE BEEN, WHERE WE COULD BE GOING
A letter from Durk Dehner, president and cofounder, Tom of Finland Foundation.
I wanted to mail this letter out to you some months ago, but it contained information that could have hampered a police investigation. I will explain a bit further into this letter.
REACHING A TIPPING POINT
I possibly could have alleviated the severity of the Foundation’s present financial crisis if I had followed my instincts and sent a version of this letter to you with a few exclusions about the art theft and the financial load it entailed. Several less desperate appeal letters were sent over the last several months. A few committed souls rallied to the cause by donating time, funding and expertise.
Now, a year later, the Foundation has NOT joined the ranks of defunct nonprofit organizations. Yet like many other surviving nonprofits: staffing and programs have been slashed. We know how donors do not like to fund anything that sounds like it’s on the verge of failing – the “sinking ship” syndrome. We have no intention of sinking. We may, however, have to sharply constrict our services to weather this financial storm. The only “safe harbor” is a vibrant and supportive community.
I had a glimpse of what was to come back in the spring of 2006, yet did not truly see how far-reaching the effects of this fiscal trend would have on the Foundation, myself and the artists and culture that surround us.
Are we to stay open, or shutter the windows and go silent? That is the reality that has always faced us, and faces us at the present time. It is important for all to know the costs that will be attached to such a decision. This letter should give you a complete picture of the complexities that we have had to endure and the formidable obstacles that have been put in our path to overcome.
The informative biyearly printed version of our newsletter for our Members had to be dropped. Our e-mail newsletter was curtailed from twice to once a month. The Foundation’s website is updated much less frequently. We had to let go of our very dedicated and enthusiastic office administrator in June 2009.
Thousands of irreplaceable paintings, drawings and photos in our Permanent Collection are currently stored in a climate-controlled environment at the cost of several hundred dollars a month. This incredible heritage may soon have to be placed in a much less “art friendly” atmosphere.
TRAVELING EXHIBITION, ART THEFT, AND EXPENSIVE RECOVERY
August 29, 2008: I had just returned from five weeks in Europe. The trip started with a wonderful Parisian launch for the TOM fragrance by perfume creator, Etat Libre d’Orange. I then took a short, yet wonderful, week in the north of the Netherlands with my son, Todd, and his family, where I enjoyed my two granddaughters who are simply bursting with life’s energy.
I then went to England to investigate the theft of eight works of art from the Foundation’s Permanent Collection. [This is the part that the police did not want us to announce to the public.] The pieces, by Tom of Finland, had been in a European traveling exhibition since December of 2006. This same exhibition then went on to Liverpool in September 2008 as part of the European Union cultural capitol’s Festival of the Arts. Over six thousand people came to see the exhibition with the London Times dedicating a full page of editorial to it.
I am very impressed with the men and women from the Homotopia organization who brought the exhibition to Liverpool, and Liverpudlians in general, for being so natural and down to earth in their appreciation of queer artists. They presented new and inviting experiences in a truly real and hip way – utilizing so much of who, and what, we are as a queer arts community. I invite you to visit Homotopia online and see the video clip of rock icon and artist, Holly Johnson, on a tour of the exhibit. [Scroll down the menu for the entry labeled “Fellow Travelers.”]
In regards to the theft of our art, I was fortunate to get some good “leads” that directed me to a collector who had purchased three of the stolen works. Legal services were engaged and the police informed. The exploratory investigation into the theft and legal representation has cost both the Foundation and me over $25,000 to date.
Worse than that, this entire experience has had a devastating impact on my emotional and physical health. It has literally robbed me of hundreds and hundreds of work and personal hours. It has taken me away from what my daily duties have been – making sure that the Foundation is generating the necessary income to stay healthy – operating with a full staff and program funding.
October 2009: Hopefully we will soon be permitted to issue a full press release on all the occurrences that surrounded the theft of the artwork, for now I want to inform you that all of the missing works have been recovered!
Two individuals have been arrested and charged for this crime in the courts of the United Kingdom and go to trial in late January 2010. They are Andrew Clarkin and Simon Pittuck, the owners of the Keith Talent gallery, which were made the official representatives for Tom of Finland’s art in England at the time of the theft. They had acquired this status by being booked into the tour by our gallery representation; Western Project based in here in Los Angeles. The Keith Talent gallery had been developing a notable presence in the international contemporary art scene through their participation in art fairs in London, mainland Europe and the United States.
The Foundation had always deferred the final decision of which galleries would accept Tom’s work to the expertise of Cliff Benjamin, owner of Western Project. Both Mr. Benjamin and I met with Mr. Clarkin on a visit he made to Los Angeles where Clarkin presented himself, and his gallery, as being both honest and progressive. It has always been the policy that the gallery representation is in charge of all necessary “background checking.”
Benjamin was the curator of this retrospective exhibition of Tom’s work which premiered at his gallery in the early fall of 2006. In addition to the 88 works represented from the Foundation’s permanent collection, it included another 30 works from our inventory of for-sale pieces. It has always been ToFF’s mission to keep Tom present in popular culture so we were pleased that his work would be seen in London — a city that has had a large Tom fan-base for many decades.
TOM OF FINLAND XXL
September 2008: The book, Tom of Finland XXL, by TASCHEN, was in full production during August and September of 2008 demanding most of our time and energies. It required the Foundation to supply the publisher with originals and negatives on a daily basis always in search of the best source material for this monumental book. This is the kind of book of which artists dream – it is 666 pages with the format size being XXL (approx. 12” x 18”). To truly get a sense of this book’s magnitude you need to go to a bookstore and see how important this volume is in the way it honors both the artist and our own homosexual community. It surely makes all of us proud of the master artist, Tom of Finland, for he is our own homeboy and a true hero of mega proportions.
October 2009: The book has been out for over 4 months now and TASCHEN reports that sales have been very good. It retails for $200.00 and you can purchase it through the Foundation, yet I must let you that Amazon just wiped us out of the competition with a price of $126.00 – a price that can’t be beat.
It seems a lot of people are confusing a previously released volume on Tom, titled Art of Pleasure, with this book. The two books are very different, and comparing the two, one will see they are like Tom’s drawing, titled Night and Day! Go to “The World of Tom of Finland” to read more about it and many other noteworthy happenings in our namesake’s ongoing career. (It has been 18 years after his passing!)
WEST HOLLYWOOD / LOS ANGELES EROTIC ART FAIR WEEKEND
July 2008: ToFF scheduled the West Hollywood/Los Angeles Erotic Art Fair Weekend (WHLA EAFW) for October 3rd – 5th, 2008. As president, I wanted to go ahead with the Fair Weekend, as the visual arts that represent our community are the means for us to pass on who we are to the younger and developing generations. It is where our passions and our history are contained, and, it seems to me, that it’s the easiest and most straightforward means for us to share ourselves with our public. It is part of the foundation on which our Foundation has been built.
As the deadline approached, I had to make a hard decision. With the XXL publication under deadline, the continual distraction of the art theft, and reduced staff because of budget cuts — the Fair had to be postponed.
The WHLA EAFW was rescheduled for March 2009. It is was our 14th Fair Weekend in Los Angeles and our 20th Fair Weekend nationally. The year 2009 marks our 25th anniversary as a nonprofit, the Weekend was part of the celebration and I was determined to make it the best we have ever had!
October 2009: The March Fair Weekend 2009 was a success. We had 60 artists participating, which was a full house for the city’s auditorium in West Hollywood. We had nearly 950 attendees at the Fair, some who came both days — these numbers lining up well with past years, so again we did fine. It was also noticeable that a lot of younger people were in attendance. The sales were acceptable — not great, yet not dismal either, considering it was a recession year, so yes, we did just fine. Bearing in mind we did it on an extremely small budget also indicates that the Foundation did a fine job.
The Fair would not have been possible if it hadn’t been for the involvement of the City of West Hollywood who provided the space to us without fees and the West Hollywood Marketing & Visitors Bureau, under the leadership of Bill Hynes, who made it possible for us to have beautiful street banners that promoted the Fair. West Hollywood is a welcoming city, one that recognizes the contributions of homosexuals as something extremely valuable to the life of the city nicknamed “The Creative City.”
The future expressions of how the Foundation will interface with our public is definitely uncertain, based on the simple fact that our membership numbers have continued to slide downwards over the past three years. The younger generations are not yet clued in to the essential position they hold in our cultural communities and that their involvement and contributions are a necessary component for it all to continue. Remember being 20-something — did you think of such things? Most likely not. That is left to those who have already savored the life: Namely the elders of the community.
Tom used his work to communicate to many of us an identity and a sense of pride and ownership in being homosexual – full and complete as human beings. The main issue here is the operating structure of the Foundation is slowly being whittled away because of diminishing income. There are fewer staff and volunteers here to take care of all of the programs and offerings that our public has come to expect from ToFF.
EMERGING EROTIC ARTIST CONTEST
In the past four decades we have experienced a renaissance in the erotic arts. It can continue to flourish if we as a community are there to encourage it. We have seen the financial value of artworks increase — both with Tom of Finland and hundreds of other artists. ToFF has had an Emerging Erotic Artist Contest (EEAC) almost every other year since 1991. The winners of these Contests have proven us accurate in our acknowledgement of them for they have gone on in the development and advancement of their art, some becoming renowned in their field.
October 2009: This year the Contest has had a markedly fewer entries to date and our thinking is that it must be because we didn’t send out an official press release. The reason? We were short on staff and finances and only did an online announcement of the Contest. We realize now that we must send out hard copies of press releases in order to reach many of the small international magazines and gay centers that had previously promoted the Contest within their communities. The deadline has been extended for submissions until November 30, 2009 and the winners will be announced on January 1, 2010. The winners will be invited to exhibit at the WHLA EAFW in March of 2010 as guests of the Foundation. Artists have been notified and an announcement sent out.
FUNDRAISING AND OUR HERITAGE
Our fundraising efforts in established annual events such as Tom’s Bar, which was created out of a celebration party in honor of Tom when he had passed back in 1991, produced a gold medal level of attendance this past June with over 850 paid celebrants. They were mostly from the younger generations and didn’t seem to be interested in our silent auction. The auction has been a strong source of generating revenue in past years indicating, one more time, that it’s going to take some attention from all of us to guide our youth into the world of collecting art – art that speaks to who we are as a cultural, artistic community and expresses the sensual and sexual aspects of our nature.
October 2009: Unfortunately we cannot do a Tom’s Bar type event every other month to generate revenue and, once again, we haven’t generated any new memberships from fundraisers during the past months including our biggest, Tom’s Bar.
November 2008: We appealed to our entire, extended mailing list asking for support. Reflecting back on all the hours and monies that volunteers and staff put into creating and producing that mailing (a personalized Tom of Finland greeting card) — it only produced a trickle in actual financial return.
Each of us has a responsibility to make sure that we are aware of the cultural environment that surrounds us. By doing so, we attach value to it. Then we must do what is necessary to keep it healthy so that it may survive. The Beauty found in sexual expression is essential to the developing homosexual and making it an integral part of our lives has never been more important as we attain more mainstream acceptance. We must guarantee financial support for organizations, such as ours, that nurture and care for the abundance of developing artists that express who we are through what they create.
The homosexual community reproduces in a very natural manner without having to propagate through mating. The percentage rate of homosexuals in the population appears rather stable, year after year, decade after decade. This is part of the natural scheme of things. In harmony with that, and erotic art being indigenous to who and what we our as a tribe, our artists continue to develop and come into their own and will keep creating art if they are provided with an environment that nurtures them.
TOM’S INFLUENCE KEEPS EXPANDING
My commitment to Tom was to keep his artwork out in popular culture as I witnessed how it spoke to young homosexuals. His art continues to do its magic and his audiences continue to widen. He also represents all artists no matter their sexual orientation. Tom did not succumb to the pressures of society that might restrain his freedom of expression. This was never better stated than by a French contemporary photographer artist, Rachel Laurent, who I met at a Tom of Finland opening in Paris in December 2006, “I have arrived at the bastion of freedom. Displayed here are the works of a man that didn’t cower or inhibit himself in his expression of what was in his heart. He represents freedom for all of us.”
October 2009: The results of our community’s commitment can be seen, as Tom is currently part of two exhibitions. The first, in New York, Compass in Hand: Selections from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection at MoMA, where two of his five works from their permanent collection are on display. It seems rather ironic, yet enlightening, that these two pieces are relatively tame compared to many of the other works being shown. Tom’s determination to include his sexuality in his work is finally showing its effect in the contemporary fine art world as other artists and curators validate the inclusion with other representations.
The other, The Collectors, at the 53rd International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, where Tom has been given a beautiful wood paneled wall in the Nordic and Danish Pavilions showcasing seven of his works (six being from ToFF’s permanent collection). It was through seducing the curators with just one more work to consider, and then one more — that we got them to take the six including one preliminary sketch of the David, a commission done for Franco Zeffirelli. Another work included is one of the drawings that was stolen in England in 2006, and then recovered.
We have an exhibition scheduled this autumn in Berlin Germany that will include both works for sale and works from our permanent collection. The reason we design shows in this fashion is to encourage collecting and to allow the public to view artwork that otherwise would rarely be seen. Unfortunately, museum exhibitions take years in the planning and they are few-and-far-between. Few, too, are adventuresome enough to book an exhibition of Tom’s (or a selection from our outstanding permanent collection of hundreds of other artists.)
October 2009: We were very excited about having Tom’s work seen once again in Berlin for it was a city of which Tom spoke with deep passion. The exhibition, Tom of Finland, opened on September 26 and runs until November 21, 2009 at Schlechtriem Brothers gallery (Kleine Kurstrasse 1, 10117 Berlin). It coincides with the 2009 Berliner Kunstsalon — a fair for contemporary art — and has already been seen by major players in the fine art field.
Considering the dire financial situation we are in, we still found the funds recently to provide a grant to the artist Hector Silva, enabling him to produce giclées and frame his works for an exhibit at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas. Both he and ToFF were invited to exhibit in their first year anniversary show, Sex on the Streets, which opened on September 12, 2009. Silva, who focuses on the subject of young Latino men in relationships with each other, expressed to the Foundation how important it was for him to be in this exhibit with his fellow artist and mentor Tom of Finland. He just did not have the money to purchase the frames and materials needed to fulfill his commitment. This is an artist that supports himself, his partner and his parents from the sale of his artwork.
There are very few granting institutions with programs that are willing to embrace, and stand behind, giving money to an erotic arts foundation. In America there is such a stigma attached to sex; yes, still today, over 200 years after this country was founded. Thus it rests on the shoulders of us who are more enlightened and see the positive results that come about through the celebration of the erotic arts.
THE FUTURE OF OUR HERITAGE, AND THE FOUNDATION
I am personally worn down with the ongoing obstructions in raising funds just to keep us going. I am still full of the passion. Yet being 60 years of age, I just don’t have it in me to be out there fighting for a piece of the pie the way we need to in present times. I have devoted my life to the advancement of the erotic arts and have done as good job as I have been capable of. The recent criminal / theft issues and the continuous problems in meeting the financial requirements may mean that the Foundation will need to operate solely as an archive till such time that we can secure sufficient financial endowments that will allow us to find our way into the future.
The homosexual communities of the world need to organize and activate a cultural preservation plan. We need to arrange for an international funding organization that would keep tabs on all the cultural collections, both private and public. This organization, with its international recognition, could garner the respect needed so that gays and corporations will be contributing en bloc! This organization will dispense funds when needed and step in to save collections which otherwise would be sold off, split apart, reducing their importance, access and availability to the work — collections such as Bob Mizer of AMG and David Hurles of Old Reliable, and one day potentially the Tom of Finland Foundation Collection if this trend is not reversed.
October 2009: I propose that we have a conference that could be funded by a large and stable arts organization where we bring all the big hitters and the smallish sluggers together to develop methods and to implement a global plan. What is needed is a public relations campaign geared at our community: To first of all protect, then to preserve and then to promote the past. Nurture the present. Plan for the future.
I am an idea man. I am loyal and dedicated. I never said that I was either smart or a good businessman. We cannot have all attributes. I will most likely not be around 20 years from now and I do not want to see Tom of Finland Foundation become merely something from the past.
I am asking all who read this to go inside themselves and see what you are capable of taking on and contributing in some form. If you share in my philosophy of life, want to pass it on to others and nurture those around you — please let me hear from you.
October 2009: One final issue and probably the most important one.
Over the past four years the Foundation has taken over more and more rooms in the TOM House (the library, “stacks” and storage/work rooms) as ToFF takes possession of more objects). I have only been able to pay the mortgage through the rents I receive from roommates and/or the rent ToFF pays for the spaces they occupy. I also used to have my own successful business and did not draw a salary from the Foundation. In the past few years I have accepted weekly wages from ToFF (not a hefty amount considering my age and my “seniority” — $15.00 an hour!). Well, with the collapse of income to the Foundation, so went its ability to pay the rent and my earnings. This has had a devastating result — I have not been able to pay the mortgage and now the House is in foreclosure. This comes to you from someone who was never late for one single mortgage payment in the 30 years of owning this property.
It has always been my plan to leave the TOM House to the Foundation. When I consider even the remotest idea of ever moving — it’s impossible — there is just too much in materials here. This property has been an important Queer center for decades and it truly deserves to continue to be such. There are some great defenders of our culture out there and we need your involvement in helping us through this most difficult time. I ask you to consider ways you can step up to the plate. Be a hero for the Foundation — for me — and for the community at-large.
We need to sell some art — art that has been designated for sale both by Tom and other generous artists. We need to find a partner to assist in getting a new loan with a good, low fixed-interest rate that both ToFF and I can afford. We need people to help stabilize this situation soon. You don’t know how hard this is for me to share with you — I have always been a very proud, and perhaps too self-reliant, person. The Foundation and I need your assistance now and I humbly let you know that time is not on our side. If this strikes a chord with you, I ask you to please call.