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“If I Can Inspire Others To Do This Kind Of Thing, That Would Be Amazing”: A Conversation About Koyama Provides

In July of 2018, The Comics Journal spoke with Annie Koyama of Koyama Press about her decision to close the publisher. (Full disclosure: as an employee of Consortium Book Sales, I worked with Annie & Ed Kanerva during that time period.) At the time we had that conversation, Annie's next project was "still being formulated."

Few people in comics are unaware of what that "formulation" led to. Koyama Provides has spent over a year pumping out financial micro-grants to a wide variety of individuals, many of them cartoonists and comics adjacent artists. I thought it was high time I caught up with Annie to talk about the nature of the work she is doing and her ambitions for others to join her. Later this week, The Journal will share more about the work Provides has supported--today, it's all Annie. - Tucker Stone

Photo of Annie Koyama by Robin Nishio

Tucker Stone: When did you first come up with the idea of Koyama Provides? Were you wanting to leave Koyama Press behind and then came up with the idea, or did the idea come first?

Annie Koyama: This work actually preceded my foray into publishing. In fact, it was essentially the same idea where I approached an artist whose work I liked and offered to fund a small project for them. They could keep the proceeds and they'd have something to sell or a project under their belt that they would not have been able to fund themselves. I continued this as a parallel project the whole time I ran the press. In the last year, since I was still selling our books but didn't have any new ones on the horizon, I decided to make it public in the hopes that I could perhaps inspire others to do the same. Before I announced in 2018 that I'd be closing Koyama Press in 2021, I had laid a plan to give out microgrants in a more formal manner, after the press was done.

When you say “inspire others to do the same”--do you mean other publishers? Other individuals? I’ve heard you say something along these lines before, but wasn’t sure whether it was directed at specific entities or not.

​​By others, I mean people who have the means and the will to share what they have with artists and arts workers.

Anytime the economy falters, the arts seem to be on the cutting block first. I hold out hope that this will change but I am not sure that I'll see much change in the near future. One thing I noticed during the height of the pandemic was that many people probably didn't realize that what they turned to in order to get through the past year was arts related. Films, books and music are a solace to people yet, once business resumes, the value of the arts is often relegated to the background again.

I'm tired of seeing artists have to move out of the city because the rents are unaffordable. I know that these people will continue their work elsewhere but the cultural base of a city is altered and eroded when these trends occur.

I've had some people offer small sums to give out on their behalf but I'd rather not set up as a non-profit nor be responsible for outside funds now, in part because I'm still figuring this out as I go along, which seems to be my modus operandi.

Why didn’t you set up Koyama Provides as a more traditional charity or registered non-profit?

I did initially explore this option but ultimately didn't want anyone telling me what to do.

I didn't want to be beholden to a board of directors. I'm both a decisive and an impatient person so the thought of waiting for direction on how to give out my own funds seemed to make no sense. If I'd wanted to include fundraising as part of this initiative, then it might have made more sense to go that route. And to be clear, the funds for the grants have always come from me personally, never from the press.

Doesn’t that sort of negate the relief that you gain by shuttering Koyama Press though? Like--without you running things, making choices, paying the bills, how can Provides function? It strikes me that you’re not going to get the break that I had initially thought was part of the decision.

Good point! A change is as good as a rest, they say, and this work enables me to stay in a community that I like and have Ed Kanerva and Daniel Nishio continue to contribute, albeit now as freelancers. I like to work hard and though it's no longer full-time work, the process of choosing grantees takes a bit of time and as in publishing, I am working several months ahead. For the most part, I'm not working on weekends now, which is a big change and a step towards feeling as if I am getting my life back.

What other kinds of artists are you interested in working with, outside of comics?

If I had unlimited funds, I'd open it up to all disciplines but that's not the case, so after some thought, I'm going to at least for now, concentrate on cartoonists, multidisciplinary artists, and the occasional filmmaker.

I'd rather give more microgrants out and benefit more artists than concentrate on fewer projects with higher budgets.

There will be some larger projects that require more support as well.

Are there other microgrant initiative that you think have been successful in this fashion? Within comics, i’m most familiar with the old Xeric grant, outside of that and the others like it, i’m woefully ignorant.

I also am only cognizant of the Xeric grants which I believe ended around 2012. Though I have given several grants to cover printing costs for self-publishers, that's only one facet of what the grants will cover. So in that way, my initiative is broader, though most of the grants will be smaller than what was given out through the Xeric Foundation.

 

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Besides the immediate assistance and support the initiative provides, what are the larger goals of the work you’re doing? 

So far, I have four categories that I'm interested in. I'm still figuring out another separate category as well.

The first aim is to enable artists to complete small projects. Often they are projects that might not come to fruition due to lack of funding.

The second is that through the workshops and mentorships, I hope to enable people who can't afford these opportunities to participate while making sure that the mentor is being paid a good rate. Before deciding to offer mentorships and workshops, I did some research and found that some people were doing this work for very little compensation or for free. By paying a proper rate to artists, I hope that others will do the same.

Third, once we can attend shows safely, I'll consider travel grants again.

Because travel has always been important to me, I always personally made it a priority at the expense of other things. I really believe that you will derive inspiration when you travel to new places and meet people who are different from you. Just being in a new setting, often when you are not able to speak the language somehow resets my brain to see things with new eyes.

Since many artists cannot afford to travel to shows, residencies or to a destination for research, I think that is important.

Fourth, there will be some grants to cover the cost of art supplies and tools since people will be constrained if they don't have the right tools, or bad ones. And having the chance to try acrylic paints if you have only used watercolor paint before is one example, I'd like to see people branch out and new tools could help. There may not be enough to buy a Cintiq but perhaps a tablet of some kind. Or printer/scanner.

My goals here are to bring attention to the need for financial help for artists everywhere, to support projects that would not see the light of day otherwise, to enable people to try something new and hopefully expand their worlds and to urge others to pay artists for their time properly.

If I can inspire others to do this kind of thing, that would be amazing.

I know that there are people in comics who have reached out to me, who want to help but would prefer to give through an organization. I am not going to be fundraising anytime soon for this initiative, (sorry Dustin Harbin) but it's nice to know that there are others offering their support and by support I mean cash.

Who has received a grant from KP so far? I think that if part of the goal is inspiration to other potential givers, it would be helpful to expand upon the pool or recipients listed so those types of individuals can get a fuller picture of the project.

Since the beginning of 2020, I've given grants to cartoonists John Vasquez Mejias, Mare Odomo, O.K.Fox, Stanley Wany, Lark Pien, Kelly K., Georgia Webber, Hakim Callwood, Noel Freibert, Daryl Seitchik and Dan Nott, Dustin Harbin, Eric Kostiuk Williams, Bianca Xunise, Eunsoo Jeong, Kate Lacour, Lawrence Lindell, Michael Comeau, Ness Garza, Xia Gordon, Joe Decie, Meghan Turbitt, Aidan Koch, M.S. Harkness, Trubble Club, Jenn Woodall, Ginette Lapalme, Shing Yin, Khor, Carta Monir and Whit Taylor.

I'm also giving several artists grants to cover their time as they mentor other artists. So far, Julia Breckenreid has already completed four mentorships and will do seven more this fall for illustrators and cartoonists, Georgia Webber is mentoring artists with disabilities. Sadie Dupuis, the musician, will run a chapbook contest through her label Wax Nine. Ideally all of the mentees chosen might not have been able to afford to participate normally.

In addition, I gave grants to several multi-disciplinary artists such as the  Chloë Lum and Yannick Desranleau (you may know them as Seripop), Amy Lam and Jon McCurley (aka Life of a Craphead), Roula Partheniou, Jon Sasaki, Nick Di Genova, musician Rae Spoon, writer/performer Sandra Shamas and photographers Yuula Benivolski and Laurence Philomène. Terry Chiu is an upcoming filmmaker that I'm helping as well. 

I’m often asked if one can submit in order to be considered for a grant. At this point my list of possible grantees is long and I want to continue to work through that list first. I may consider opening submissions in the future.

The hardest part of this initiative is seeing how many people need a hand up in comics and the arts in general. This is not news to me, obviously, but it’s frustrating when I only have a limited amount of funds to devote to artists. There are quite a few people who have been at this for a long time with very little financial reward and I want to cover some of those people too.

How do people find out about these projects? I thought I had been keeping up via social media posts, but when I read that list of names I was only familiar with about 50% of them. 

The grant announcements go up every Wednesday, around mid-day on Instagram @koyamaprovides, on Facebook as Annie Koyama and on Twitter @AnnieKoyama.

In a perfect world, I’d be able to cast my net even wider to find people to support but more than half of the grants are going to cartoonists. The others come from other disciplines, though several of those artists straddle both worlds. And Clark Burscough is kind enough to post about the cartoonist recipients on this site on Fridays.

Are you interested in more long term funding relationships in the future?

Similar to running my press, I want to continue supporting as many of the artists as I can while adding new people into the mix. The constraint in publishing was that I didn't want to publish more than around twelve books a year, so you have to make choices about who you continue to support that year. The same will hold true for the grants. I will and have definitely gone back to support a few artists in subsequent projects. But it's always a juggling act because now the constraint will be my budget.

There’s a lot of areas in comics where, when problems come up, there’s a loud call for more money to fix the situation--whether that’s a bunch of human resource hires to eliminate sexual harassment, “marketing” people to increase sales, higher pay rates to artists and creators, bigger print runs. As someone who has been consistently putting money in the hands of creators for the last decade plus (and comic shop employees!), I wonder what your perspective is on the economics of comics. Is it a sustainable enterprise with a more equitable future coming for more than the handful of success stories? Is it an artform that will always rely on a certain level of personal and financial sacrifice on the parts of all its various players? 

Lately, I've heard more than a couple of cartoonists say to me, "I hate comics". None of these people plan to stop making comics but I think that they are referring to the economics and insular world that we all function within.

Aside from continuing to figure out how to grow the market, I don't really have answers despite losing sleep about this over the years.

I really do believe that bringing in Universal Basic Income (UBI) would be a good place to start.

But there will always be some sacrifice when choosing any kind of art making, I think because as in other disciplines and professions, there are no benchmarks and guidelines which when followed, lead to rewards (money, recognition). With any kind of art, you have to find your audience or readership and so much is subjective, it's difficult to quantify.

It bothers me to ask that question, because in the asking it feels like i’m pushing towards a line of reasoning that is “let’s get real here” which so often means it’s time to reinforce the status quo or shit on more fanciful solutions. I am legitimately struggling to know what to argue for in this regard anymore. The older answers that made sense to me, that had direct real world examples of success (staying up late, sacrificing for the project) no longer ring true. I see people, artists, often ones that are, I believe, younger coming up and talking about turning stuff down for mental health reasons or just an unwillingness to compromise their own value or aesthetic or what have you, and I know that they are making the right choice. I know that the part of my brain that is responding with a cringe is the part that has been bred to be scared, to view the world as a place lacking in opportunities, and that cringing part, the fear--that is what has motivated me to make choices that have not benefited my life. They’ve just been a financial maintenance program. I look at what you’re doing here and it feels like a legit attempt to do something that can make things better, and I’m honestly just saying--what else do you think needs to happen? In addition to having others in your financial situation make similar forms of outreach, what would you hope for?

Tucker, I hear you and this is a very pervasive mindset, unfortunately.

As long as we are living in a capitalistic system, it's very difficult to break free of that financial maintenance program. Moreso for those of us in large cities where the cost of living is high.

I've personally felt that pressure, for me it comes from being a freelancer most of my working life. Only because I was able to get ahead of debt am I able to do what I'm doing, though I'll be the first to admit that it's not sustainable in the long term unless I decide to fundraise at some point in the future. 

I am trying my hardest to make things better but if we're being honest here, I still feel that in this new role, I'm a reluctant gatekeeper.

There are so many ways one could approach an initiative like this. For example, if I decided to give solely based upon need, the list of grantees would look different.

Because of a limited budget, I've unhappily had to impose some constraints on myself in choosing people to help.

If people realized how much work it is to do what I am doing now, though it may look pretty simple on paper, they might run away screaming. 

That said, I'm still hoping that others will take up the mantle and choose to give similarly. A thousand dollars may not seem like a lot, but it's enough to print something or acquire the tools to work on a new project. It's enough to cover a bit of rent to enable an artist to work worry-free for a few weeks on their book. It's enough to help offset travel to a show or a residency.

My point is that you don't have to be rich to choose to give to an artist.

You don't have to give a grant every week.

Even if you can help one artist, that impact can be felt.

By offering free mentorships and workshops to people, my hope is that the people who get those opportunities will pass on their knowledge to others. Especially to people who cannot afford such an opportunity themselves.

By paying the mentors and facilitators a good rate for their time, I hope to encourage others to start paying people properly and stop asking artists to work for free.

Have you seen others step up? Besides them contacting you on the side, are there others out there doing the work? 

Zainab Akhtar at ShortBox has been giving out small grants, which is great, and I believe that there may be a small grant that is tied to the Massachusetts Independent Comics Show too.

A lot of people support cartoonists via Patreon campaigns so that's an example of regular giving.

I'm unaware of any others, though I'd love to know about them if they exist.

That response feels like a “no” to me. Zainab is certainly a success story with her projects, but I feel like people like her, people supporting Patreons--that’s just pulling more money out of the same small wallets. What do you think it would take to get some larger benefactors involved? 

Busted. And I can't argue with you about Patreons, I do think that it's the same pool of cash moving around. Patrons can be fickle, which results in a fluctuating monthly base. The other thing I dislike about Patreon is that the model is built on having the artists provide work or 'rewards' for their patrons. If you don't post regularly enough, some patrons will unsubscribe. The concept of paying a monthly fee to support an artist whose work you like is fine but I'd prefer supporting people so that they can concentrate on making work without the pressure of having to constantly post.

I'd love to find others with larger pockets than mine to start similar initiatives.

Getting institutions involved because they'd have the ability to fundraise might be the solution, though I suspect most of our comics institutions are not flush right now, understandably.

Stay tuned this week to hear from some of the Koyama Provides grant recipients, and follow along with the Wednesday announcements on their social media. Know of some more comics grants? Leave them in the comment section below!

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