Stringing the Net: An Interview with Small Arts Patron Annie Koyama

Annie Koyama. Photo: Robin Nishio.

In 2007, anticipating a recession that would destabilize so much, the celebrated publisher Annie Koyama began giving out small grants to artists – “quietly,” she stresses. At first, she invited local illustrators to launch projects from which they would receive the profits. This effort dovetailed with her founding Koyama Press, a small arts publisher that specializes in comics, graphic novels, art books, and zines, which – after a successful fourteen-year run – will close in 2021. As the Quill and Quire noted, Koyama Press immediately stood out from the comic-book fray by focusing “more on personal stories and individual idiosyncrasies than battling aliens.” 

This attention to the interior aspects of an artist’s life has been a theme in Koyama’s parallel track of arts philanthropy, as she has prioritized artists’ most foundational needs, those tiles rarely laid by patrons and yet all-essential to an artist’s ability to continue working. She has published and helped fund some leading mid-career artists at their earliest points. Among these are Walter Scott and his first Wendy comics (now published by Drawn & Quarterly; his practice was recently reviewed in Momus), and Roula Partheniou, Jon Sasaki, Xia Gordon, Yannick Desranleau & Chloë Lum, and the collective duo Life of a Craphead (Amy Lam and Jon McCurley), among others. As Partheniou put it in an email, Koyama’s philanthropic attention is “amazing work,” but she has been doing it “silently, for years.”

Koyama’s winding career informs her appreciation for an artist’s needs. She painted sets for the National Ballet and worked for the National Film Board of Canada before moving on to head Canada’s largest commercial film production company, where she put in more than a decade. At the end of this lucrative chapter, Koyama had savings. But she also had severe endometriosis and was suffering from crippling migraines, leaving her housebound and depressed. She began to play the stock market from bed, netting enough to launch her largely philanthropic press. 

The announcement that  Koyama Press would end its rich run rocked the Toronto art community, and caused an outpouring of affection and gratitude, but also a concern for what could fill its place. Now, Koyama finds herself in the midst of a pandemic and living on “borrowed time,” as she puts it, with an inoperable brain aneurysm. She has become more and more devoted to engaging with artists, she says, providing lifelines and checking in on the over one hundred artists and art workers in her extended family during these dark months. “In some respects it’s been business as usual,” she reflects. 

Can you tell me about where this giving impulse began? Where did you get your sense of duty or altruism from? 

I grew up with generous parents. I have five siblings and we didn’t have a lot extra. Obviously you have to share when there are so many of you so that part was ingrained, I think. I’m of the generation where it was a given that one day you’d own a house and have a job – so very different from how things are now. I never imagined that I’d one day find work in the arts that I liked and that paid very well. I was always good with managing money, but I do not come from money. I left home during high school so it was a necessity to figure out how to make what I had work for me the best.

I didn’t follow any model, my choice to share what I had was motivated in 2007 by thinking that the government grants available to artists would start to dry up. I had kept hearing that we were in for a recession. Indeed, 2008 was the start of a few economically tough years. Anytime this happens, it seems to me that the arts fall to the bottom of funding priorities. I had what I needed by then, and I don’t have kids, so I thought that if I contacted some local artists, I could fund a small project for them, let them keep the proceeds and hopefully enable them to make and sell something that they could not afford to do on their own.

Toronto is a city with many people who have extra. Though the larger arts organizations are supported, the individual artists fall through the cracks. There are only so many government grants to go around and it’s especially tough to make a living in the arts in a city where the cost of living is insane.

I had survived a terminal health diagnosis which brought home the fact that I might not be around to do everything that I’d planned, so that was the biggest impetus to start helping others in the arts. 

Can you tell us more about that diagnosis and what it changed or revealed for you?

In 2005, I was incidentally diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and sent home with only a few weeks to live. I pushed for and opted to have a risky surgery that was successful in containing the aneurysm. In the follow-up appointment, I learned that I had another brain aneurysm, but this one was inoperable due to its location. Hence the feeling of living on borrowed time.

I suspect that anyone who is given a terminal diagnosis has to do some fast thinking about what is really important. Once I survived, I decided to help artists.

A plein-air sketch of Niagara Falls, from a Koyama-funded collaboration between Jon Sasaki and Oliver East, 2020. Courtesy Jon Sasaki.

In a past interview, you mentioned specifically seeking to fund “the printing of books, covering travel fees to shows/residencies, paying for table fees, paying for course fees, buying equipment for artists, etc.” How did these subjects announce themselves to you as what was most needed, or as where you wanted to put your energy? 

I have insomnia and like to look at artists’ work on Tumblr and their sites when I can’t sleep. I found a lot of good work that way. Once I started publishing books and tabling at shows, I met so many more. Following a lot of people on social media alerted me many times to individual instances of specific need. Sometimes, I deduced that it might help a certain artist to pair them up with a mentor or send them to a residency to complete a book or work on a project. Without the right equipment, so many opportunities are lost. Art supplies are expensive as are tools, so that one was a no-brainer. Printing books is costly, especially if you wish to print locally, so that was one area that was obvious. The opportunity for artists to get their work out and meet a lot of others at a show away from home is invaluable. I know that some of the people I helped met their future publisher or got an agent this way. 

I prefer now to fund a small project, but remain open to all of these possibilities.

Yannick Desranleau & Chloë Lum, 2020. Courtesy the artists.

Most patrons avoid ‘smallnesses’ like these – the artists’ infrastructure, the tools, the foundations, the operations budgets. These aren’t the seductive or newsworthy kinds of commitments that give patrons bragging rights. Yet they’re the most desired, and as we say, overlooked. 

I totally agree and I understand that people can’t figure out how to reach artists in need but you know, just throw a rock in any direction [laughs]. Or ask me for a list. I personally enjoy finding new artists, doing a bit of research and then reaching out to them.

If as an artist, you are only doing work for hire or tailoring your project to the many constraints that you may have with a grant or a residency, my aim is to allow you to do something different, try another discipline, take your work to another place in the world that you might not be able to do by yourself. If you cannot afford supplies or tools, you’ll be limited from branching out in your practice. 

This is not glamorous giving and you won’t get a tax receipt, which is important to a lot of people, but really, when you think about how art enriches your life, isn’t that enough of a payoff?

I had chosen primarily to work with emerging (for lack of a better term) artists, but the longer I do this, the more mid- and late-career artists I meet who in many other industries would be recognized and paid more for their experience but instead are struggling financially. I’d go further to say that North America doesn’t value its artists properly. Since we live in capitalist times, value will continue to equate with money. 

How would you like to see us better valuing our artists? What could we be doing differently?

In a perfect world, artists would be as valued as professionals and paid accordingly. There would be less need for patronage, especially if post-secondary education was free for everyone. Starting a career with little debt would help balance the challenge of living in cities with a high cost of living. Artists, nor anyone else, should be forced to move out of the large cities because they can’t pay the rent. Gatekeepers would be able to take risks on unknown artists even if there was little financial payoff.

Aside from your attention to the quotidian necessities of an artist’s practice, what would you say sets you apart from arts philanthropy as we’ve come to know it? 

I know how hard it is to make a living in the arts even if you are good at what you do. I have spent a lifetime working in the arts. I wanted to be a painter initially but decided that my talent lay elsewhere. I have done some illustration, graphics, set painting/prop making, and drafting. I was a film producer before falling into publishing. I prefer to support individuals over larger institutions. Without the individual artists, you don’t have the building blocks in place for the larger institutions, in my opinion.

Also, even if I didn’t feel that I was living on borrowed time, I’m an impatient person and I can’t wait around to find others who want to do this with me. So I’m going to continue on and if I can inspire someone else to follow suit, that would be great. If we all wait to line up others in order to start any good initiative, it may not happen.

The fantastic artist Roula Partheniou called what I do “defiant generosity.” She said, “Annie’s is a uniquely defiant generosity – she has a vision for how the world should be, and since no one else is going to make it happen, she has stepped up and taken matters into her own hands.” I like this very much.

Roula Partheniou’s studio, 2020. Photo courtesy the artist.

Have you considered scaling up the operation in any way? 

The immature side of me doesn’t want anyone telling me what to do, and that is why I will not do this as part of a new corporation or non-profit. I never have trouble finding people whose work I like and who I’d like to support. I generally prefer to meet the artist in person first, but the pandemic has temporarily caused me to shed that requirement. I do look forward to the day I can do that again. In 2020, my focus has been widened in terms of who I choose due to greater need, but because I don’t have unlimited resources, I may have to pare that down in the future. There are no strings attached to these micro-grants and no reporting process. As much as I can, without a submission process so far, I’ve made them easy to obtain. There’s a level of trust there.

Do artists continue to be in touch about their progress? What are these relationships like, longer term?

Many of them have kept in touch, I know most of the artists personally and I think they know I’m very interested in seeing what they do with the grants. There is no formal report due, though. Before the pandemic, I always preferred to meet an artist in person if possible, to talk about their work first. There is a connection there that you can’t quite get with online correspondence. There are a few examples of people I have gone back to support after the initial project. Similar to when I started the press, you want to see the artists that you support do well, and, as much as possible, I try to continue to support them. But since my resources are limited, I can’t do this for everyone. There’s nothing better than watching someone you have supported flourish.

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