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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50 Comments

  1. This is so true – I show 25 times per year in shows and galleries – less means more – I consult with galleries as well and good white space creates clarity. In today’s world, the bombardment of Audio visual overload can destroy an artistic space in seconds. Leave visual room for contemplation, and allow the collector or art advocate to find space and imagination in the space you create –

  2. Hi Jason,

    I just experienced this during a weekend art show this past Saturday. I had a 30″ x 40″ painting on display, my largest and best work. Previously at the last show (which was better attended), it was cluttered with a lot of other smaller paintings. But this time, it was secluded more by itself. And a couple came along and purchased it, first time at the studio gallery, right out of the blue! I think the display had a lot to do with the sale, but more than even that, I prayed that morning that I would sell that particular painting, and God answered my prayer with a sale during a show with a pretty low turnout. In fact, other than a small book sale, that was the only one. But it didn’t matter, because it was a huge sale for me.

  3. I was once asked at an art walk why I had only four or five paintings on display. My response was they needed space for people to see them. I also had move inventory in the van if I was to sell something. I no longer to art walks as the sales are abysmal and the sun is damaging. As always, excellent information Jason.

  4. I see artists post photos of their booths at festivals and the walls are lined solid with art. For me, it all runs together making it difficult to really notice one piece from another. I feel the viewers need a place for their eye to rest between pieces. It gives them the space to really notice and take in your work.

  5. Thank you for sharing this, Jason. I have been turning this concept over in my mind on an intuitive level for quite a while and am happy for the confirmation that Sheena and her research offers. As Mimi mentions above, that visual resting space is key, especially in these days of nonstop visual and stimulation overload. I see these “commas” or pauses allowing greater opportunity for the other 50% of the visual arts experience to occur, — the beholder’s integration/assimilation of the art that is before them into their own experience and making of their own meaning; in a container that allows for that depth and breath — an experience I believe our souls long for and are grateful for in the midst of all the frenzy. This alone may stimulate the viewer to choose to make the art their own — as it may serve as a reminder of that musical rest that was offered to them in the midst of the cacophony! Very well done.

  6. Absolutely fascinating talk – this will help with my upcoming open studio (where I will avoid hanging as much work as last time), and also gives a lot of food for thought for organising my website, which hasn’t been all that productive.

    Thanks, Jason – a very helpful post.

  7. Good article, thank you for your observations. In the mid 1960s I went to work selling men’s clothing for a large department store. The senior staff trained me to never show the customer more than three items at the same time, like sweaters or ties. People can’t decide, your comment of choice overload is very accurate. Same is true with art work. It is always a big expenditure and a big decision. If people see too many paintings the details of the artwork all becomes blurry in the customer’s mind which results in them walking away. Less is better.

  8. I have never participated in art fairs, but I would like to add that this topic is a pain point for me in the context of website design for artists.
    There are only a handful of ways to display artwork online. Two of the most popular are: one piece at a time in a slideshow, or in a grid-style gallery that serves up everything at once. The slideshow approach is nice because it allows viewers to see each piece separately, but then they risk not getting the ‘big picture’ on a body of work. The grid approach can also be nice because the viewer can more immediately understand the story of your work. It is also great for displaying several installation shots from a single exhibition. As an artist, I am still figuring out which approach is best for me, but I do agree in all cases that less is more.
    Aesthetics aside, a confused customer will quickly give up when paralyzed by too many options. By limiting what you present for sale there is an opportunity to be more strategic—saving certain pieces for different times of year, or perhaps in conjunction with a special event. Also, it gives you a reason to mention other works not on view, which helps to seed the conversation.

    1. I would agree that a website needs to offer a compartmentalization of choices, to reduce overload. I like sites where I see categories, and can look at one category at a time. And it allows me to skip categories that honestly don’t interest me, spending more time with the ones that are of interest.

    2. Hi LISA, one recommendation I have, regardless of layou is to put the picture in a room scene to create perspective. I have had great feedback and one of the galleries I am working with is going to adopt the concept in a gallery catalog – people have issues with space perspective.

      1. Hi Mimi, I’ve been wondering about this idea of having a room layout. Even artists have a hard time picturing things on a wall / in a room sometimes! Any idea how much it’s helped sales for you from your website?
        Cheers,
        Hannah

  9. I have definitely experienced choice overload in both buying and selling. When I used to do the weekend art shows I would load up on everything I had. People would stop and look, then walk away. When I had fewer pieces on display I usually sold more. It was also easier setting up my booth with fewer pieces to work with.
    As a consumer I have found it difficult to make choices when confronted with too many options. I have either made the choice to walk away or, if it is something I really need, I just such my eyes and grab (and I’m usually not happy with what I grabbed).
    Very interesting blog and video. Thank you.

  10. I’ve experienced this same response to too many choices over & over in life! If I can get that way about shampoo or toothpaste, think what an awful time someone making a large purchase is going to have! Thank you for the reminder to keep my art displays lean.

  11. I’ve been guilty of that with the same result; the temptation is to provide choices to fit every taste and subject matter. You can’t. Show your best at its best.
    If what you have doesn’t appeal to them draw on positive feedback, “I love your work.” That is a “buy” signal. Come back with questions exactly what they hoped to see, the room, decor, the reason … any information that will help you identify a piece you didn’t bring that would satisfy their search.
    Make sure you have a means to show an image of the piece. I keep a tablet handy and can show them a painting they might be interested in. Make an appointment to show it in person or on trial. Don’t let that prospect walk away without options.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Jackie. I am told that all the time but never thought of picking up that signal except for a simple thank you. I’m preparing for a show in a couple of weeks and will definitely be armed with my tablet and pics. I hate to also weed out my paintings, but it’s a good time as any to try this out.

  12. I find this to be true and particularly when visiting art exhibitions. I much prefer a one person show where things have some kind of flow in terms of subject or style. If there is too much I suffer sensory overload very quickly and lose interest. I go to the summer show every year at the Royal Academy in London with my niece who is an amazing artist and we do find the variety and amount of work too much to handle in one go. I love going into small galleries who are showing one or two artists and spend time with the work. I often come out of those experiences with a warm glow that feels like it reached my soul somehow.

  13. Jason, I don’t know what to think now.. you suggest we should triple the numbers of our works but then we should limit the works we show.. may be you are right, though sometimes we follow the circumstances meaning that we need to show lots of works as the ehxibit space requires it. For instance, at the beginning of November I had four shows in different places and one in the local vineyard, which was really spacy.. I am showing 25 paintings there, but no sales yet..I don’t think the quantity has ever influenced the sales or may be I didn’t pay attention ..I am not an art fair artist right now, so it is hard to say.. recently I had a good sale of mini canvas sales in a cooperative gallery, sold 11 out of 15 and the space was crammed! But I will certainly take this into consideration.. then I will need more galleries to show my work..

  14. well appreciate the admonition and consequences of showing too much but in a prior post when you previewed your new gallery spaces, I noticed on several walls groupings of artwork, same artist I believe…how does that relate to the key point you make in this posting? is it ok to group a few small works together or??? if you have a large space, as some commenters note, should you not hang what you can, albeit with good spacing?

  15. Does this also apply to on line sales? In other words, should one only show 3 or 4 pieces with an online association with a gallery?

  16. Probably 80% of galleries I walk into make the ‘shotgun clutter’ mistake. They take on too many artists, and crowd the walls. Thanks for making this point, I have always thought less is more.

  17. I presently have a solo show called “Go Figure” where I have 60 paintings. I’m getting great feedback but no sales. In March I have a solo show in Chelsea. I will try very hard to space my work and limit the number of paintings. It’s very hard for me to do this. I have so much work I want to share. Many thanks for the article.

  18. And at the other end of the spectrum, you have people that–no matter how much you have to chose from– want something else. I had one prospective at a two-day show that liked my flowers, but didn’t want yellow (the most paintable flowers I had encountered around that time happened to be yellow). Or purple (the second most paintable flowers I found). Or blue. I pointed out my “Rainbow Roses,” which she liked, but they were 16 x 20″, and she didn’t want to spend the money on that size without thinking it over (She didn’t return the next day, to buy or to look). Another saw my eagle headshot (I’d JUST started painting birds, so I didn’t have any others) and wondered if I had any full-body ones.

    My potter/phtographer friend runs into it a lot, too. “Oh, I like this, but do you have one that’s more _____?”

    1. Those are all classic “I don’t want to buy” excuses, to pose criteria you can’t fill. There is only one valid reason, “I can’t afford it,” and I rarely accept that either. I offer “whatever works” terms so they can pay me on time. Have an agreement on hand and hold the piece until it is paid for. I even accepted housekeeping services as payment once.
      And if they still won’t commit, “Tell me exactly what you want and I’ll paint it on commission.” I keep commission agreements on hand; half deposit, remainder upon approval, and then ship.
      If none of that works then you are the afternoon’s entertainment. 🙂

      1. Wow! I would love to be able to do that. Either you’ve been doing art shows for quite a while or you are just really good at it. I don’t want to come off as pushy so I just accept their excuses… free entertainment, huh?

  19. As a point of conversation, look at how the Royal Academy displays work at their exhibits. Especially during the golden year with the likes of Turner and Constable. In most cases work is almost touching the piece next to it and some so high up on the wall, it’s almost inaccessible.

  20. Showing less definitely works. I have greatly reduced the amount of work I show and sales vastly improved. This year at my open studio I put work along the bottom of the wall that wasn’t on display since there was no other place to store it. It worked well and as pieces sold, I was able to hang another work.

  21. I remember mentioning this to you Jason when I met you at the Xanadu gallery. I was surprised about how so many galleries in Scottsdale were cramming art on the walls. There are only a few true art town in the States and Scottsdale is one of them, you think that they would at least do that! Anyway, it was a pleasure meeting you and seeing that your gallery displays artist’s work in an elegant and professional manner… not that I expected anything less from you!

  22. This is exactly why Target will fail. And Best Buy. Grocery stores have already proven that having more than one choice of cereal or vinegar is a bad idea—and don’t get me started on the cheese case. It’s also exactly why we never see wine shops any longer and why there is only one standard vitamin C in the nutrition store.

    Perhaps you should pick your three least active shows and experiment to see how this TED Talk applies to your sales. There has been a bit of research on the mental “cost” of providing extra choices (or options, or functions, or paths) for websites and apps. The TED presenter’s basic points hold true here as well. However, the user (audience) must be part of the equation. Each person has a tolerance for “one more thing” which is partially influenced by need and drive. You must account for this in a particular situation before you generalize and create a rule of thumb.

    Besides, when your booth offers four pieces and 100 other booths are crammed with items, are you seen as an oasis? Your booth is likely perceived as being part of the overall crowded marketplace. Therefore if my brain fatigues after Booth 20, having fewer choices in Booth 21 won’t provide an instant, refreshing cure.

    Furthermore, the effect will vary depending on how long the person has been at the show, whether or not they attended with an inclination to buy, and all the other variables that are part of such events. So to test your hunches, pick your least profitable shows and experiment there to see if the amount of your products affects the height of your sales.

  23. Great topic! And an extremely informative and well delivered TED talk. It makes so much sense. I am definitely convinced now to limit the amount of art I hang during studio tours. Thanks. You are always so generous with good advice!

    1. Signature pieces on display clearly seperated from small pieces. Tons of eye candy is not a good aaproach for finr art. Look at the best jewelry shops in the malls… They leave space in the display case. And yes, less means more is hard, but rarity promotes value. If you talk to a customer who is looking for something specific you can pull special pieces from inventory and display on a black felt board and personalize the customer experience, you can engage and tell a story – . Hope this helps – seen this approach work in action and sale.

  24. I agree that each paint needs enough space to allow people to see it in its entirety without being crowded.
    But for those who paint wildlife and birdlife, I find that the potential buyer IS LOOKING FOR A SPECIFIC BIRD OR FAVORED ANIMAL. To that extent, you may have a wall full of different birds and creatures without making a sale. Sometimes they ask the question HAVE YOU EVER PAINTED A……….. fill in the blank.
    Two weeks ago a local gallery hung mostly new work for the season’s holiday show.
    I submitted numerous paints offering to take back what didn’t fit (limited wall space). The gallery chose 3 of my (6) skunk series paintings and 3 others ( TWO STRIPED AND A HOODED SKUNK) AND ONE OF THE VIEWERS ASKED IF I HAD PAINTED THE CONE NOSED!!! As it just so happened, I HAD but the painting was not at the gallery. I gave my card but there’s been no response.
    This issue of variety- it can be like an ice cream store- you offer 25 flavors but there’s ALWAYS SOME GUY THAT WANTS WHAT ISN’T THERE.
    As for myself, I prefer to have lots to choose from, whatever I’m buying. IT KEEPS PRICES COMPETITIVE . But my personal experience in buying art work is that NO MATTER HOW MANY THE CHOICES, if there’s one that sings to me, I have no interest in the rest.
    I’m not sure how common that is.

    1. I have to disagree – keep some works behind the sidelines – this way you can pull a special piece on demand and work the sale by engaging and telling a story. When I first started I ignored this advice, then after I put into practice rarity and individualized customer experience -into place, sales went up, including fan buyers .i know” first instinct is to show as much as possible, not always. Wise move, especially during fine art shows

      1. Hi Mimi, great replies / comments, much appreciated! For the works you keep behind the sidelines, do you post them (all) on your website (in the proper section / category) so you can just pull it up if customers ask?
        Cheers,
        Hannah

  25. We’re not new at making art but new at selling it and have been concerned about showing too much work both at art fairs and on our website. I found this TED talk and the responses here to be very helpful. We’re going to cut and categorize going forward! THANKS!

  26. Thank you Jason – I had an art show this past weekend and after I read this blog post and watched the video I decided NOT to put out all 15 of my angels. It worked. I ended up selling 8 total at the show and when one sold I put another one out – only having 8 to choose from. Excellent advice!

    Nancy Pirri

  27. Excellent advice. I went to an art festival in November and most of the artists had too much stuff out. I didn’t even want to stop at those booths. I stopped more where there were few pieces so I could really look at the art and appreciate the work.

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