“Tom is not owned by gays, he’s owned by the world.”
In 1980, Durk Dehner invited the trailblazing homoerotic artist Tom of Finland to live with him in Los Angeles. From then until his death in 1991 Tom split his time between the Echo Park residence and Finland, with Dehner wearing many hats: muse, model, lover, business partner, friend and cofounder of Tom of Finland Foundation, an organization dedicated to maintaining and building TOM’s archive, and as it states on its letterhead, “Protecting, Preserving and Promoting Erotic Art.” Last week, Tom of Finland Foundation celebrated its 29th birthday, a particularly joyful occasion as it happened in tandem with a landmark exhibition at MOCA LA, a clear summation of the Foundation’s years of hard work and affirmation of Tom of Finland’s proper place in history: a master artist, visionary and champion of sexual freedom whose body of work is important to society at large.
How did the Tom of Finland Foundation start?
My initial motivation for starting the Foundation was as a friend. I took Tom on because he needed to have a business associate that could move things forward. I knew that he wasn’t prepared to do that part of it and I just wanted to help him, especially in America. He wasn’t from here and he was so taken advantage of here.
How did people take advantage of him?
People were always illegally reproducing his work. You could find it all over the place, poorly printed. Oftentimes it never stated who published it, but it was distributed across the country.
Who was actually printing it?
It was the mafia. There was a printer in the San Fernando Valley that was reprinting his work. It’s funny, when we tried to get our first book published we ended up in their office. The printer shook Tom’s hand and immediately said, “I wanna thank you. I’ve made so much money off your work that I was able to put my son through college.” You could see Tom’s face get bright red and he was shaking his head up and down, trying to be agreeable, but it was a complete slap in the face.
Did you still print with them?
We had to because at the time we couldn’t find anyone that would print his work in Los Angeles. I mean here, in this metropolitan city they were so uptight about it. That continued for a long time. It was the same with galleries. They would rarely show explicit erotic work and if it was homosexual in nature, it was even more difficult. Museums certainly weren’t buying or collecting it so we had to find our own way.
How did you do that?
We created our own galleries and our own Art Fair Weekends that were designed to bring artists and potential collectors together. Through that, we developed our own collector base. I’m not saying the Foundation did this by itself, I’m saying it was the culture, the community. It was underground for many years and then it gradually surfaced.
Why did the Foundation care so much about helping other artists?
Tom felt that sexuality expressed in the visual arts is natural; it was one of the premises of his life and, when we don’t allow it, we censor what we could do and inhibit ourselves. He was unwilling to compromise what was creatively coming through him and because of that he sacrificed a faster road to…
Not necessarily. As I said we built a collector base. It was an interesting process because, through the Fairs, our community gave value to its own artists and their work. By raising the prices on ourselves we allowed the artist to be more secure so they could create more work.