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.

 

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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 ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

35 Comments

  1. Wow! How timely for me. And I guess I did it right. I do not invite collectors to my “studio” because it is only the corner of my living room. But this purchaser of one plein air piece was persistent, and wanted to see more.
    So we finally found a date, had wonderful conversation over tea and biscuits (cookies), and I pulled out framed and unframed pieces. This person has eclectic taste and wanted to see everything, even buried ones. But I did hold back plenty – I have too much, and have learned restraint.
    After much sorting and grouping and swapping, at the end of the day, the new collector took twelve pieces!
    Jason, your advice column is greatly appreciated.

  2. I’ve not only experienced ‘choice overload’, I’ve provided it. It’s called, for lack of better name, “lazy management.” And you’re right . . . it doesn’t work. I’m afraid I have a tendency to avoid the hard choices of what to remove, and I guess I’d better learn, or . . .

  3. I believe there has to have space to breathe inside the artwork as well as outside the work. Better to be sparse than crammed on a display wall. Years ago, I participated in an art show at a city organized event. The art works were on the walls one next to each other and filled on large table tops,too. It’s like a discounted shop, depressing! I have never gone back to the event since.

    1. Thank you for the insight and confirmation that there has to be room to breathe “inside” a painting. I am struggling with too much “clutter” inside my artwork right now. Simplify, simplify, simplify!!

  4. This is excellent advice and one I have followed for years at art fairs. One helpful tool when at fairs is to limit the pieces on display and have a portfolio with photos of your other work. If someone likes your style and or work but not finding the right piece – then you can show your book and they may find something there that works or hire you for a commission. I find that having the book for them to look through also keeps them engaged with looking at YOUR art instead of moving on to another booth. Your booth or wall space is a display to attract people – overcrowding over stimulates and causes people to leave. Personally I get over stimulated easily at stores where items are crowded together with little breathing space to separate them. And I usually walk away empty handed.

  5. It’s the age-old problem of editing for clarity. it starts with that first essay in school, and dogs some of us the rest of our lives.
    With art works, how does one leave some of the “children” home? That analogy can go far and wide it art work. Look at it this way- some pieces will be disturbances which offers the prospective buyer to say “no”.

    Disclaimer: This is my problem- I can say it but when it comes time to actually edit- it is daunting and traumatic mainly because of the remembrance of all the energy that was poured into the creation. It is brutal to say but worth remembering that collectors could care less about that. From their perspective they are seeing only what appeals to them. Something most likely you are not aware of.

    The lesson continues– On to the the TED talk (which I may have already seen before).

  6. I agree! My reference is my own experience shopping and being overwhelmed with choices. My best shopping experience was about 20 years ago when buying carpet. The sales person was awesome, instead of going through the hundreds of carpet styles there, she asked me a few questions and pulled out about 4 samples and I bought one.

    And I kind of like the term ‘psycho-economist!’ I think I may start referring to myself as a ‘psycho-artist!’

  7. I agree, Jason. I find that in my co-op gallery, many artists seem to want to pack a lot of art in their space because they think otherwise they will miss out. But to me it looks busy. I would rather have a cleaner look to my space and fewer, but more meaningful sales.

  8. I am one of those folks who tends to not choose when I have too many choices so the TED talk was very enlightening and made me feel normal. It will help me with my displays. Thanks

  9. Very good point Jason…I am always conscious when hanging art, about the negative space around the art. The stronger the work, the more negative space it requires as well. If you have one impactful wall which is sort of a centerpiece or focal point, put your strongest piece with impact on it and a lot of negative space around it. The work will stand out stronger, be a easier to read, and will actually appear more important and of greater value to the general public. With some of my artists ( with particularly large works) I will keep only one or two hanging and other works in my inventory room. When someone comes in and falls in love with a particular piece I have two options…I can offer to show them other works by the same artist, or I can keep them focused on the one they are in love with. This is when it is important to know how to read your client. If the person is seriously interested, and just needs to think then I do not confuse them with additional images. If they are interested; however a bit more ambivalent then I will offer to show them additional works. It is not unusual for people to need to think on a big purchase, so I normally do not confuse them with showing them the additional works upfront.. When I am allowing them to consider just one work and it becomes a i definite “no”, then I mention: “Oh! I also have some other works, by this same artist which are wonderful , and may be of interest to you. let me go get them”. When hanging art also try to hang art which does not compete with the work close to it, but rather compliments it in it’s palette, size or feeling. Never allow work to sit on the floor.

  10. This is a hard thing to not fill the walls and bins, but it works! Even in my print bins, when I limit it to less prints, they are more apt to buy. Too many leads them to freeze up, even if they like the art! They cannot decide. I am the same way when I shop. Less is more!

    Thanks for the great idea when they like something and pause, to offer another in the back room.

  11. My mom says too much art on the gallery wall is like going to a diner, too many options, too hard to decide. Some times its easier to go to an expensive restaurant that only offers a limited number of choices.

  12. Question please:

    How many pieces should I have to present to a gallery if many of my paintings are quite large…say 6’ x 5’ ?
    I paint with a lot of detail. It may take three months to finish one painting.

  13. Excellent. Now if I could get a few of may gallery owners to read this. Floor to ceiling packed tight together one every inch of wall space tells a prospective buyer in a gallery that this owner either has hoarding tendencies or simply doesn’t know how to let art ‘breathe’.

  14. Question please:

    Your answer really helps my situation, but on a similar note, How many pieces should I have to present to a gallery if many of my paintings are quite large…say 6’ x 5’ ?
    I paint with a lot of detail. It may take three months to finish one painting. What are galleries expecting from an artist in situations like these?

    1. It largely depends upon the gallery. Galleries with limited space are going to want to try two or three works to start. Galleries with more wall space available may want to try 5 or 6 works to start. Make sure your website has a good number of your works, so that the gallery can get a good idea of your ability. If you are not very prolific, you can include some past work, however try to focus on your most current work (painted within the past year). Your work also needs to be very cohesive. For marketing reasons, you may want to think about painting a couple large works a year, and some smaller works as well. More galleries will be interested in you. Galleries prefer to see about a dozen or so works, however three large works, and about five or six smaller works is a good enough number for a gallery to obtain a reasonable estimation of your talent. If your work is exclusively large, then I would have at least six works to show them.

  15. Thank you for posting this, Jason. I love TED talks. I’ve thought about trimming down my portfolio, wondering if I’ve lost any sales through my website because there’s too much to choose from. Impossible to know, I guess; but at the very least, refreshing my website and/or creating categories might be great ways to feng shui my portfolio in the New Year. This article and video make some great points. I’m excited to contemplate them further!

  16. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for addressing this.
    I have this tendency to try to show as much as I can.. because:
    1- I believe “there is a better chance at having the right piece in front of someone” as you said..
    2- It is too hard for me to choose which pieces to keep…
    I really have to work on this… for my next show.
    Two questions:
    In a show: What about the bins? Would you also limit the number of pieces in the bins? On one hand too many pieces can be overwhelming, one the other hand people looking in the bins are likely more interested…
    On the website: Would you also limit the number of pieces displayed? For now, I am always adding new work, rarely deleting old work…
    Thanks

    1. Great question on the bins. I have mixed feelings about bins. I know that for a lot of artists, the bins become the bread and butter at many shows. My concern is that adding a bunch of art into the mix at a show with a bin, can interfere with sales of other work on two levels. First, the work in the bins is likely to be at a much lower price point, and second, you are making it harder for clients to make a purchasing decision for the reasons mentioned in this post.

      For artists doing a lot of shows, I would highly recommend experimenting with the bin. Put the bin out at half of your next 10 shows, and leave it in the studio for the other half. See how the presence or lack of the bin affects your profitability for the shows. There can be some variation just by the nature of the different shows, but you should have some pretty good data at the end of 10 shows.

      I predict that most artists will see an increase in the sales of major works if the bin isn’t in the booth as a distraction.

      1. Thanks for the reply.
        In my case, the work I present in the bins is the same as what I hang on the walls, except that the artwork is matted but not framed. So it doesn’t compete from the price point of view. Would your answer be the same in that specific case?
        Would it be a good idea to take out the bin only when a visitor asks if I have more work?

        Regarding my question about the website, I am really interested in hearing from you.

        Thanks a lot again for your very interesting and informative posts.
        Eric,

  17. Would Jason or others care to comment on how sculptors face this challenge, as opposed to painters? (Many sculptures are intended to be observed from 360 degrees.)

    1. I approach sculpture in much the same way. Part of the equation is giving sculpture space to breath and be seen, but it’s also important not to overwhelm the buyer with too many choices.

      1. Thanks for the reply Jason…….
        I’ll lay out a few facts about my work and hope that you are willing to share your thoughts. I sculpt stone cars….. that is the “artist label” I have sought. Sizes vary from 16″ to 32″ long……though in numerous colors, eras /types / brand of car.

        I have three styles so far……fairly realist with wheels and tires which rest directly on table or shelf…… a little more abstract “flying pods” with no wheels / tires and the piece elevated by a metal stand …… and also abstract with 50-80% of the car emerging from a larger stone (table resting again).

        So, what was your instinctive imaginary plan as a gallery guy as to how a display of this art should be configured? Number, size, colors, elevations, etc

  18. I have often wondered if this same effect happens when you are in an art fair where all the art is on panels next to each other and there are around 200 artists showing. After walking through the grounds and looking at all the art it was over whelming for me. I tried to put myself in the steps of the buyer and thought no wonder very few artists are selling. Even if you scale down your display there is so much art around yours it doesn’t minimize the overload much but I do think it helps give the viewer a rest and perhaps more inclination to slow down to look.

    I have noticed I sell as well or better at smaller shows even though the traffic flow is not as big as I do at much larger shows where the traffic flow is considerably more. So it makes me wonder about the logistics of it all, all the way around.

  19. Hello Jason,
    I have appreciated all the advice you so freely give to artists. I have a related question to displaying your art. Assuming you have limited the artwork you are showing (which is hard to do!), when you sell a piece, do you leave that spot blank with notice it sold, or do you replace it with another piece?
    Thanks!
    Natalie

  20. Jason,
    This discussion comes up frequently at the artist-run gallery where I show my work. Every December and January, we have an All Member Show where each of our 30-plus Artists gets their own section of wall and can hang what they like, as long as they maintain a six inch distance from their neighboring artist’s work. Some like this arrangement and consider it fair and good for individual artists’ sales. Others find it over-crowded and a less-than-professional look for the gallery.

    When your article showed up in our inboxes, it started quite a discussion, one that will likely continue for a while. Thank you for sharing your point of view and giving us something to consider as we tweak our annual show.

  21. Great advice! It is hard to suggest less is more, especially artists who are showing at a show, be it an indoor or outdoor fair. I have heard the term “wallpaper” and that’s what you see. I am a retired graphic artist. I only show my best work for whatever project a perspective client is interested in and I edit my portfolio to that interest.

    I have a question on a related subject. I have a member show next year that the area me gives a lot of room to show. I can use panels as well as nearby wall and floor space. I’m thinking of showing different styles of artwork- abstract and representative painting styles, photography, and drawings in their own spaces. I would give each media breathing room. Is this a good idea?

    By the way. It’s been said that a reader spends 2 seconds looking a magazine ad unless it’s of interest to them! Thanks!

  22. Great topic, enjoyed the attached Ted Talk. I feel like I can use this idea of less is more at some of the festival shoes I do. I am always conscious of not overcrowding my booth, nut I think I can be even more selective and push the less is more idea a bit more. The categorization idea made a lot of sense to me a well, and seems to be a very smart idea.

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