A giant in business and the arts: Marc Besen (1923-2023)

Leading businessman, philanthropist and mentor, Marc Besen AC, has died at the age of 99.

Marc Besen came to this country in 1947 or 1948, a penniless migrant, and developed a fashion and retail empire (Sussan, Susan Grae and Sportsgirl Groups). He achieved much more conceiving funding and building the world renowned and first Australian privately funded Public Modern Art Museums – TarraWarra in the Yarra Valley. 

The TarraWarra Museum of Modern Art also backs onto another major Besen achievement – the highly regarded TarraWarra Vineyard with beautiful wines of chardonnay and pinot noir that have gained consistent national acclaim. 

Marc Besen’s legacy goes even further as he was a strong supporter of the late Berek Segan OBE AM who conceived and launched the Castlemaine State Festival (CSF) in 1976. Marc Besen was one of the key members of the famous ‘Melbourne Committee’ for the festival, which worked in very closely with a ‘Castlemaine Committee’.

Mr Besen ‘put his money where his mouth was’ and generously contributed to CSF over its 48-year history to the present date. He also generously funded the ‘Dominique Segan Drawing Prize’, which was a competition open to all artists Australia-wide, and his support meant that leading Australian art experts would attend and judge the winning entries to this prestigious art prize each festival.

Marc Besen was born in 1923 in Romania and he grew up speaking German. The family were quite prosperous having a timber yard but due to German occupation he made the decision to flee Romania after the Germans began deporting Jewish people to death camps around Europe and in Germany.

Marc and his family purchased an old rickety fishing boat and in 1943 started their journey to Palestine. The passage was very dangerous and the boat engine failed just as they reach the Turkish coast so they got ashore with their remaining clothes soaking wet and no other possessions. Marc and his parents reached Israel where they lived for four years when they set out for Australia.

He attempted study but as the family were very poor, he started an import business supplying the very tiny Sussan stores (three only) owned by Faye and Samuel Gandel. Marc married their daughter, Eva, and from there a dynamic marriage and business partnership grew and prospered.

Marc and his late wife Eva had four children who have all made their mark in business and the Arts following the example set by their extremely generous, wise and thoughtful parents.

Marc and Eva developed friendships with many young artists who were all at the start of eminent careers, such as Smart, Whitely, Olsen, Fred Willians and Drysdale and there were many more they assisted by buying art, which in those times was still considered ‘new’ art.

With CSF, Marc Besen supported an ambitious Castlemaine State Festival project in 2015 – the Impossible Orchestra, which involved putting together at short notice an orchestra to commemorate the amazing work and foresight of CSF founder, Berek Segan. The orchestra played a marvellous concert to a full house at the Phee Broadway Theatre and a professional recording was cut to preserve this wonderful historic event.

Castlemaine and its festival will be the poorer after the loss of such wonderful patrons such as Marc and Eva Besen, but their great work and that of founder Berek Segan lives on with a marvellous festival every two years, now designated an official ‘State’ Festival, an honour not bestowed on any other Australian Music and Arts Festival.

And Castlemaine, due largely to the influence of the festival, boasts the highest number of artists per capita of any Australian city.

– Marshall Segan

Left to right: Marshall Segan, Marc Besen, Marysia Segan, Eva Besen and Berek Segan.