top of page
  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Selling art and managing expectations: Artists, galleries and the ‘Paradox of Choice

From an artist’s viewpoint, gallery directors have always it seems taken time out to caution me against providing too many works in advance of an upcoming exhibition.  I try not to take exception.  But is this advice genuinely given in the interests of the artist, to ensure the works are edited to ensure only the best is exhibited?  Or is the gallery concerned that it may not be able to sell the works in a tough art market where the client is spoilt with choice, putting at risk the artist’s reputation and the gallery’s business itself?

I assume the truth is somewhere in the middle.  Perhaps this awkward conversation is nothing more than a well-meaning attempt to manage expectations all round? 

Nonetheless, the success or otherwise of an artist’s essential exhibiting career depends on the health of the artist/gallery relationship.  At the heart of this successful peer relationship is trust and honesty, like any.  So is there truth behind the idea of the ‘Paradox of Choice’ in selling art?

From an artist’s perspective, he or she has worked hard to get to this point of exhibiting their work; shedding a lot of blood, sweat and tears along the way … and money.  And at the risk of hubris, success it is felt is to be well deserved.  But is success found in reaching new audiences?  Critical acclaim?  A big crowd on opening night?  Or simply, lots of sales?

Sales are important to the artist, just as they are to the gallery.

But can success be observed so clinically and objectively, or is it to be viewed more through the emotional and creative lens of the artist?

So what merit is there in a gallery director’s claim that scarcity will help sell the artist’s work?  Often it is difficult for an artist to view such a claim objectively, and without a rush to judgement on the credibility of the gallery.  It is perhaps worth noting that the art of selling art is more complex than it would first appear.

Is being spoilt for choice a good thing? Why more is less.

In this context, is having less works available to the buyer a sensible strategy?  Or should the primary purpose of the exhibition be to showcase as much of the artist’s work and talent as possible – with the works successfully coming together as a single, cohesive visual narrative - in order to boost sales?

In his book The Paradox of Choice – Why more is less, Barry Schwartz challenges the myth that giving people more choice is positive and makes people feel in control.  Rather, he suggests that too much choice creates anxiety and reduces satisfaction with the choices we make.   Choice overload also results in people freezing and not making any decision because they fear making a bad decision.

To cope with the problems created by choice overload - potentially resulting in a buyer freezing and leaving without a purchase - Schwartz suggests strategies for reducing the amount of time they spend making decisions and being happier with those decisions.  

The central point Schwartz maintains is to limit the number of options and reduce the time and energy a potential buyer invests in making decisions.

 Barry Schwartz   Photo:

Thinking about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs

Schwartz argues that the more time a potential buyer spends comparing alternatives when evaluating their most preferred option, the less satisfied they tend to be with their final decision. This is because thinking about the best features of something they reject will distract them from the satisfaction they receive from the selected item.

Everything is relative and how we feel about the choices we make is strongly affected by what we compare them with.  

And selling art is difficult.  It involves many strategies.  But remembering that the essential motivation for choosing a work of art is to improve one’s life and environment goes some way to successfully connecting with buyers.  Overloading a show so the artist can make his or her point may be unnecessary; often the artist's vision can still be achieved more judiciously.

The Paradox of Choice reminds us that sometimes when we think we are improving the customer experience we might in fact be doing the opposite.  It is fathomable that buyers will react well to a change to having fewer choices, ensuring a successful day out for everyone - and going some way towards ensuring that there will be ‘a next time’.

Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice, Why more is less, Harper Collins Publishers 2009

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia 

bottom of page