Sex, scandal and missing receipts at the Erotic Heritage Museum

Laura Henkel, assistant curator of the Erotic Heritage Museum was fired last month.
Photo: Leila Navidi

It’s been two years since Exodus Trust, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, brought its vast collection of erotica, porn memorabilia, art and S&M gadgetry to a space on Industrial Road next to Déjà Vu strip club and a stone’s throw from the Strip. The museum mixed sex with serious study, and eventually, locals and arts and cultural professionals embraced it, seeing the Erotic Heritage Museum as something of merit, not a sleazy haunt.

Erotic murals at the Erotic Heritage Museum

The museum’s momentum kept building. It gained national and international attention, hosted events and became a hub for dialogue, wild parties, fringe groups and other gatherings, all with Laura Henkel at the helm. But internal drama was hampering further growth.

The Erotic Heritage Museum’s mission was unclear. Though the two-story exhibit space (nearly 17,000 square feet) includes films, erotica from around the world, peep arcades, artwork posters, dioramas and large-scale bondage contraptions from the House of Gord, some argued that its exhibits were not educational enough; its archive was not catalogued and couldn’t be used for research. Progress lagged on the administrative side. After two years, the Erotic Heritage Museum had not established a formal board or any kind of organized structure. Missing receipts and records made grant filing impossible for the public charity.

The problems were about to be remedied, but plans were derailed when Henkel, the assistant curator, local operator and recognizable face of the museum, was terminated September 24 and barred from entering the museum that some had considered her baby. The termination came two days after Henkel and the museum’s informal advisory board met with Dennis McBride, local historian and museum expert, to discuss organizational options for the museum.

House of Gord exhibit

House of Gord exhibit

Ted McIlvenna of the Exodus Trust, who gave Henkel the job at the Erotic Heritage Museum, cited numerous problems that led to her dismissal. The big question then became: What happens to the museum now?

The Trust has replaced Henkel with Dorian Gomez, a graduate student at the Exodus Trust’s Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, and the museum held public meetings Saturday and Sunday to discuss its future. It also wants to make clear that the museum is not closing. Any plans to appoint a board, meanwhile, have been put on hold until McIlvenna “can take care of the crisis situation.”

That “situation” has Henkel at the center, and includes legal wrangling, along with Trust accusations of theft and rogue management. Each party denies the other’s allegations.

Still, Henkel has her fans and some, including advisory board members, became involved in the Erotic Heritage Museum because of her leadership. Susan Lopez, co-founder of the Desiree Alliance, says she had no interest in the museum until she met the engaging Henkel. McBride credits Henkel for her marketing prowess: “She’s been wonderful for promoting it, keeping it in front of the public.”

Henkel’s won praise from others as well, including attorney Allen Lichtenstein, also on the informal advisory board, who says she made it a local institution that people can be proud of. The way Henkel did it, however, fueled the rift with the Trust, McIlvenna says. Partnerships, fundraisers and art exhibits were done without approval from San Francisco.

Art at the Erotic Heritage Museum

Moreover, other nonprofit groups were given half or all of the proceeds from events, McIlvenna says, and Henkel’s focus on contemporary art was not in line with the museum’s mission to represent erotic heritage. Her off-site private art gallery, he adds, was a conflict of interest.

Henkel argues that her efforts were designed to generate publicity for the museum and get people in the door. Cinekink film festival, which held events at the museum in May, gained it national exposure, she says. Her gallery and local events with other groups—including Sin Sity Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Insurgo Theater Movement—were a way to introduce the museum to the community. But McIlvenna says financial records from the events were never provided, nor were any receipts of art sales: “We are a nonprofit trust. We require certain rules and regulations in the management of money. You have to save receipts.”

The whispers and arguing among those involved with the Erotic Heritage Museum will likely continue for a few weeks. After the dust settles, McIlvenna says, the museum will embark on a membership campaign that reaches out to the international sexology community, the adult entertainment industry and local residents. The Trust plans to rotate in exhibits from a collection spread out in its 25 warehouses.

Events open to the public are also planned, including the Tarts and Vicars costume party October 9 and a Halloween-themed event the next weekend. Tim Olsen, a member of the museum’s advisory board, says he will stay on and do what he can to help move the museum forward:

“I strongly believe that the survival of this museum is vitally important to the culture of this town. I have great confidence in Dorian—right out of the gate, she’s proven to be extremely capable and has a clear grasp on the changes that need to be made at the museum.”

McBride says he’s not sure whether his expertise in museum management will be tapped, but he also wants to see the museum succeed: “This is important. We’re such a repressed culture. This is a wonderful opportunity for people to look at [sexuality] in the context of a museum.”

Officials at the museum and Trust, don’t want its internal issues to discourage participation. “We’re still here,” Gomez says. “We’re still working with the community.”

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