Tucked away on a quiet street in Echo Park behind a row of tall bushes is a 3,000-square-foot Craftsman with a black wood door that houses the Tom of Finland Foundation. Started in 1984 to promote the art of Tom of Finland (born Touko Valio Laaksonen), the Finnish artist known for his hypersexualized imagery of men with bulging muscles clad in leather and fetish gear (Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” was a big inspiration), the organization now supports and preserves the full spectrum of LGBTQ erotic art. Laaksonen lived at the house for about a decade before he died in 1991. His second-floor bedroom is still intact, including his drawing table with pencils and paintbrushes. His Finnish army uniform is displayed on a dress form.
“He liked the light in there when the windows were open,” says foundation president and co-founder Durk Dehner.
It’s Dehner who helped secure Laaksonen’s first show in the United States in New York City in the 1970s. “The mission of this place is to encourage people to allow and to permit the expression of who we are as a people because we are sexual in our nature,” says Dehner, 72, who is the subject of a documentary being developed and directed by Richard Villani, a former Vanity Fair photo editor who serves as the foundation’s director of special events. “We’ve been able to open doors to new generations and provide for them and be a gathering place for them.”
As with most art organizations, the pandemic struck a massive blow to the foundation’s finances. Before COVID, the home, which was named a historic landmark by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission in 2016, held nude drawing classes, hosted exhibits and talks and supported artists in residence who lived at the house for months at a time. Sexology 101, a benefit auction hosted by Artsy running through June 11, features 24 artworks, including a watercolor painting by Gus Van Sant.