“Tufting with Tony” takes top prize at Arts Business Competition

Tony Sansalone, Giselle Oliva and Ben Carlee. Photo by Omar Waheed.

Tony Sansalone’s Tufting with Tony took home the top prize at the Arts Business Competition, a “Shark Tank” style competition at the UW-Madison Division of Arts.

On Wednesday Feb. 28, UW-Madison students had a chance to pitch their entrepreneurial art ventures for the chance to win one of three prizes at the 15th annual Arts Business Competition. This year’s businesses ranged from an artist collective, a community arts course and symphony for prizes of $2,000, $1,000 and $500 to help fund their ventures.

“I’m excited. It seems like now the work begins and we can actually get started in the coming weeks to do classes over at Wheelhouse,” Sansalone said. “I think this allows us to be able to offer more students the availability to take classes without having the financial need to worry about it.”

Tufting with Tony aims to bring the growing trend of tufting to Madison, and now it can. Sansalone was looking for $1,975 to purchase necessary equipment to bring Madison the art of tufting, a process used for textile production like rugs, carpets and upholstery by knitting into a base with U-shaped loops.

Tufting with Tony will provide courses to students at UW-Madison at no charge, solely in the spirit of bringing the art form to the community. He noticed that for an individual, the costs to buy all necessary equipment was high and created a significant barrier of entry.

“With Tufting with Tony, we wish to address the limited availability of tufting classes throughout the Midwest and through Madison. The goal is to offer workshops throughout the spring and summer months with a focus on teaching the entire tufting process,” Sansalone said.

Sansalone’s inspiration comes from his “For you” page on Tik Tok. Tufting has been a growing trend around the world as social media has continued to make it more popular, but he noticed that there were very few options around the country for people to do it themselves. He found two in his research, neither of which are in Wisconsin, but the costs were high.

Sanaslone found a gap, knew the costs to bring it to Madison and now has the full funds to teach tufting.

Classes through Tufting with Tony will start next month for UW-Madison students. Classes will be held at Wheelhouse Studios, 800 Langdon St., in UW-Madison’s Memorial Union. Classes will require a $20 registration fee that will be refunded after the first course.

The $1,000 prize went to the Cornhusk Collective from Giselle Oliva. The collective works to strengthen artists and cultural ties with the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. The collective is made up of local artists creating works using traditional, hybrid and contemporary Indigenous art forms. Oliva’s aim is to use the money to increase programming to teach Indigenous art for youth.

The $500 prize went to the Madison Gamer Symphony Orchestra founded by Ben Carlee. The symphony aims to revitalize appreciation for symphonic music across generations through live performances of video game music. Its first planned performance is coming in November.

Last year’s grand prize winners also made a special appearance to give this year’s finalists some advice on navigating their businesses as it grows. Ollie DiPietro and Ashley Shaw, founders of The Big Gay Market, have seen their venture grow exponentially with continuous high demand.

The two advised this year’s finalist to research more, figure out how to scale their business, build an image through social media and a website, and get a lawyer.

“I think we were both incredibly surprised by the wave of gays that showed up for this market, which was great, but we just weren’t ready,” DiPietro said. “If you don’t already have an Instagram, you gotta make the Instagram — people love it. Instagram was a huge thing for us.”

As for a lawyer, Shaw said it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of your business, but there some areas are out of their realm of knowledge that a legal expert can help with, such as contacts.

The Big Gay Market has seen a lot of success since it started one year ago. The market is held every quarter with more and more people wanting to attend and more vendors wanting to participate. The duo is outgrowing the space at the Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex, 448 Clark St., Cottage Grove, which have caused them to purposely limit their growth, DiPietro said.

DiPietro and Shaw have heard the community’s want for a bigger market and are planning a two-day, larger scale version of The Big Gay Market at the Alliant Energy Center, 1919 Alliant Energy Center Way, June 15-16.

The next quarterly The Big Gay Market will be held March 16.