Encounters in Publishing #13: The Curious Incident of an Artist’s Death, by Erin C. Dunigan

Death can have a profound impact on individual’s lives. The untimely passing of a friend, a family member, a personal hero…heck, even a stranger you read about in the news, can easily trigger a mudslide of sadness and depression. Death can also have an immense—and quite startling—impact on entire industries. I’ve noticed that a particularly odd thing that happens in art book publishing when an artist dies.

A reenactment:

Erin checks the news: Oh my god guys, is reporting that XX just died.

Erin’s colleagues start frantically typing away at their computers: Alright, stock levels for his last book are okay, but the one before that is going to sell out fast. We should put it on reserve.

Erin and colleagues stop dead in their tracks and look around at each other sheepishly: Wow, I can’t believe we just got excited about that.

Everyone then proceeds to take a few steps back and talk about what an amazing artist XX was, and how his legacy will endure. Introspection and nostalgia ensue. Some people tell stories about the time they saw XX at a bar, or how their college roommate used to date him back in the day. No one mentions book sales again.

I was shocked the first time I caught myself contemplating stock levels rather than the loss of a life but truth-be-told, I am fascinated by this macabre thought process. I remember when the artist Lucian Freud passed away—one of my all time favorite artists, and yet—I still immediately checked our inventory. Perhaps it was my way of dealing with the shock of his death…maybe? At the same time, the possibility of hordes of Freud lovers rushing our website and retailers to get their hands on the art legend’s publications was exciting, and comforting!

Let’s be straight here: my colleagues and I certainly aren’t picturing ourselves rolling around in money when we learn that an artist has passed away. What it really makes me realize is the huge impact that a death can have on a community, and when it comes to art book publishing, the profound nature of fame in this industry. So instead of focusing on the moral dilemma of sales potential, it’s important to look at it as people—my colleagues and I, retailers, consumers—celebrating a life. After all, books do have the unique ability preserve a legacy. They’re a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments, forever in print.


Erin C. Dunigan has a background in art history and currently works for ARTBOOOK | D.A.P., a distributor and publisher of contemporary art books. In February 2013 she organized a panel on the “Future of Art Book Publishing” at the New York Public Library and has a follow-up article coming out in the Fall 2013 issue of ART DOCUMENTATION.  When not pondering the fate of the art book, you can find her traveling the globe, nerding out at art museums and planetariums or trying to track down New York City’s best bloody mary. She’s based in Brooklyn and is easy to spot in a crowd because of her curly red hair.