Choice Overload | Cramming in too Much Art Hurts your Sales

I recently watched a TED talk that reinforced my opinion of the importance of limiting the amount of art you try to display when you are trying to generate sales.

I have long maintained that it’s a bad idea to try and show too much art at once. Whether the art is being shown in a gallery or at a weekend art festival, I believe it’s better to show a limited number of pieces instead of trying to cram everything you can into your space.

I believe that having too much art in one space hurts you in several ways. First, it makes your display look crowded and unprofessional. Most art needs some space to breathe. Your display will look better if each piece has its own visual space.

Many galleries and artists feel like they are more likely to make a sale if they offer a wide range of work. This is a kind of shotgun approach. The more you show, the thinking goes, the more likely you are to have something that will appeal. I would argue that the problem with this approach is that you may have a better chance at having the right piece in front of someone if there’s a wide range of work, but the problem is the person won’t be able to properly see the art.

Another critical problem with this approach is that offering people too many choices often makes it impossible for them to make a decision. The TED talk I watched gave me some scientific backing to this opinion. Sheena Iyengar, a prominent psycho-economist (whatever that is!?) has done research that shows that when customers are faced with too many options, they freeze up. It’s well worth watching her talk at TED and thinking about how it applies to the art business. Iyengar’s insights about “choice overload” show that when people are confronted with too many options, they choose not to choose.

You will see in the video below that having a broad range of choice can attract visitors, but it discourages buyers. Think about that for a minute. Have you ever been at a show where you had great attendance but didn’t make the sales you would have expected?

Have You Experienced Choice Overload?

Have you ever experienced the choice overload Iyengar refers to, either as a consumer or when trying to sell your art? What are your thoughts about decreasing the amount of art you show customers to boost sales? Share your insights in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

23 Comments

  1. At one time, I had the misfortune of belonging to a gallery which, as time passed, changed from a lovely, serene space to a jam-packed muddle of too much art in too little space. Very disheartening as sales declined and the owner wasn’t interested in discussions about “less is more,”

  2. I totally agree, but I haven’t always followed this good advice. Unfortunately it’s so enticing to display much because sometimes it feels as if there are so few opportunities to show my work. Instead I probably ought to ask myself is this showing my painting to its best advantage? After all a serious buyer will be interested to see my portfolio, etc.

  3. Very enlightening! In teaching, we used to call it experiential overload: that point where your students eyes begin to glass over. Though each person has a limited capacity of absorption; each are equally individual in their ability to absorb information. The mind begins to blend and even confuse data when it’s overwhelmed. I’m proceeding from here to my webstore … to edit. LOL

    1. Wow – thank you Gerald for connecting the dots! Now I know why I stayed engaged and able to absorb new info in some classes, and my eyes glazed over in others (specifically when I was reading electrical engineering text books!). Probably related to how much information is simply enhancing prior knowledge and how much is entirely new. Excited to implement this – to minimize experiential overload for my customers – in my website!

  4. I think this advice applies to websites, as well. The temptation is to put all my available paintings on my new website, but as you mentioned, I’m sure that would have a negative, overwhelming effect. I wonder what the ideal number of paintings is to display on a website.

    1. Me, too. Shutdowns during the pandemic called me to create an online shop and in the process, feeling afraid, worrying about surviving, I put everything but the kitchen sink online. I’m going to do some cleaning of my online shop. Grateful for your comment!

    2. yes, it’s been on my mind for years that I’ve got too much on my website – wanting to show many past, sold ;paintings, I’ve got many older images on my site but have recently talked myself into completely reworking my website and minimizing! Hard as it is to do, I now agree with presenting a more limited display of work.

  5. Jason – I have a somewhat related quesitons. How much work do you think should be shown on the artist’s own website. I like to inclue at least some of the art at galleries that represent me and work in exhibitions, plus some of what is in my inventory. This there a too much syndrome to think about here are well?

    Since I’m in the process of building a new website this topic is timely for me.

    1. We have a bit more latitude on a website – you want to give visitors a comprehensive view of your currently available work, but we would want all of that work to be consistent. In other words, it doesn’t need to be everything you’ve ever created. Also important to organize the site so that artwork is grouped into smaller segments (by subject, for example) so that the client isn’t seeing everything at once – no endless scroll on art websites!

        1. I design our website and I am the art director. I read a book years ago on website design called “Don’t Make Me Think!” The advice was to design the site so that anyone can find their way around it. Great book. People find our site friendly even though there are over 2,000 pictures on it can find their way around it. April, it is a good idea to ask people their opinion of your site. You don’t have to take every suggestion but a few will make sense to you and you can implement them. Our site is all custom work ordered and pre-paid. We are making another this year for pre-made fine art pieces including a shopping cart. The artist I work with has so many styles that it is constant challenge to present them in a meaningful way. GOOD LUCK!

  6. I love this! Totally agree. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate hearing her detailed analysis because I tend to operate by feeling/sensing. A lot of my work reflects the complexity of shapes in nature— awesome, overwhelming, abstract, beauty— so I try to keep displays of these paintings very spacious— fewer pieces, lots of open wall space around each one. It creates contrast, gives the viewer’s eye some resting space and also exudes an overall feeling of peace and calm. I like to believe that spaciousness allows viewers to actually “see” and interact with each painting. Salon style displays that fill walls ceiling to floor are overwhelming for me, personally. I don’t know if my more spacious displays are affecting sales, but people do comment about feeling more peaceful in my studio and that makes me happy!

  7. As a teacher of young children, I can confirm that this is also true when giving kids choices. When I set out a multitude of games and other materials, many children would wander around the classroom never really engaging in one activity. When I limited the choices and reduced the selection of materials, they were more likely to gravitate towards one and become more focused on the activity.

  8. I completely agree. At my first art booth, I had 2 days to show my art. I crammed as much as I could the first day, but a rain forecast on day 2 forced me to cut back my inventory significantly. I sold 3 pieces on day 1 but 15+ on day 2. I later learnt that a visitor from day 1 didn’t even “see” a collection of pieces that he would have been interested in. I must also say I had reduced the prices a bit on second day, so I’m sure that played a part, but get the point of showing a curated collection and not just all-you-can-fit.

  9. Definitely… whether it is goods in a store, or too much food on the plate. I freeze up and “choose not to choose”. Also I feel a little sick by the overload.
    so I agree with this advice! also, saving back keeps what’s on display feeling much fresher and newer!

  10. I’ve been to art shows where maybe 3 or 4 of an artist’s work is hanging in a booth. It’s such a relief to really LOOK at the work instead of my eyes wandering all over.

  11. I show in a large gallery where you can easily hang sixty five paintings but the dealer says fifty is quite enough which is excellent advice. This gives the paintings breathing space and the public quite enough work to look at.

  12. This is great advice and coming from experience as a commercial photographer, organization is key.

    When I was a full-time photographer, I had a plethora of topics that I freelanced. So, it was essential to keep track of these specific categories, both on computer and back-up CD’s. Here’s an example of how I split these topics into three groups:

    1.PEOPLE- family, newborn, weddings, engagement/romantic, headshots and models.
    2. PLACES- landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, travel and destinations.
    3. THINGS- still life, animals, horses, advertisements, real estate and jewelers.

    My photography website was also organized in this way so that guests’ and/or customers could easily navigate through a sea of photography options.
    This may seem like an overkill. However, the point is, I only displayed FIVE of my very best images/category because the overall goal was to show case the range of my skills and secure more jobs. This made all the difference and my photography was a great success during that time in my career.
    Now that I focus mainly on equestrian portraiture and fine-art, I feel relieved, to say the least, that the list of topics is much shorter and simplified. I can confidently say, LESS is MORE! (-:

  13. Jason this is super helpful. Thanks for the video. Question: do you think this goes for gallery proposals too? Is there a “template” for how many images should be sent to a potential gallery?

  14. I have found, and Ms. Lyengar’s Ted Talk seems to verify that “Less is more.” At Art Markets and venues having only 5 or 6 of my most striking, large original artworks draws people in, and conversations begin.

    Not being as prolific as Jason has recommended, I have made giclee print reproductions of much of my production since 2008. The giclee reproductions are quite saleable. Each of my four print bins hold different aspects of my artwork. In conversation and discussion with the folks who focus in on one or another of the exhibited pieces, I am able then to direct attention to other choices in that category of my portfolio.

    Exhibiting only a few original artworks (The Cut), also focuses attention (Concretize) with the vivid, striking works. Having topic specific print bins (Categorize), helps show more of specific parts of my portfolio (Condition choices, few to many).

    Oddly enough, this arrangement has facilitated the sale of some of my larger more expensive works. By engaging in conversation with people as they pause to take in the visuals of the 4 or 5 exhibited works, it gives me the opportunity of discovering what that individual might be interested in, and offering choices in that specific area. So while prolific print sales is an obvious low cost goal, the bigger sales are more in reach because people are drawn when they have the opportunity to express themselves, and I have the opportunity to put on my sales hat.

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