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The standard was exceedingly high for The Gavel, a pitch competition that sits within the innovative Enterprise Studio - the graduate student center for art and entrepreneurship at Sotheby's Institute, open to MA students and alums.

The culmination of the Enterprise Studio track, The Gavel takes place at the end of the academic year. The six finalists were selected due to their forward thinking, original, and market-focused business ideas.

The Gavel judges awarded two winners, Elsa Akesson and Rachel Esham, both from the New York campus. The prize of $50,000 was divided between them, in addition to each receiving one year of start-up space, dedicated mentor support for their business launch, and industry introductions. 

Akesson’s environmentally friendly art packaging Spongy Bags are already making their mark, being included in the recommendations of the Gallery Climate Coalition, while Esham’s sales platform, SideArt is targeting galleries that have been overlooked, focussing on a more local oriented mindset. 

Winning The Gavel will help to set strong foundations on which to grow from for both the finalists. With Spongy Bags, Akesson is looking, “to expand the team who will help reach wider audiences and finalise partnerships and collaborations with institutions, spreading the word quicker to attain our conservative 2026 milestone of decreasing art packaging waste by 50%, one very much aligned with the Global Climate Coalition”, and for Esham’s SideArt, “develop working with independent artists and finding ways to help them thrive creatively and financially.”

Each of the winning projects has a strong combination of passion, commitment, and innovative spirit, and is seeking to drive a positive change in the art world. Co-Director, Jeffrey Boloten, said: “It was an immense privilege to work alongside The Gavel competition's inaugural array of engaging and motivating entrepreneurs. The Enterprise Studio team, and global Sotheby's Institute staff and faculty are incredibly proud to be enabling these joint Gavel prize-winners, to continue their respective journeys in developing new, game-changing contributions to the global art landscape.”

For the Financial Times, Melanie Gerlis described her experience judging and awarding The Gavel prize as, “the award (…) for budding entrepreneurs among its students and alumni, of which I was one, were impressed by the relevance of each business in today’s market. There is no equivalent award in the art market”

Both Akesson and Esham now move into the next phase of The Gavel by being supported by the project for the next year, with Co-Director Brendan Burns saying: “The Enterprise Studio team is excited to support them over the coming months and years as they pursue their dreams.”

Learn more about the Enterprise Studio, the graduate student center for art and entrepreneurship at Sotheby's Institute.