Remarkable philanthropists: Eva and Marc Besen - Art Collector

Issue 67, January - March 2014

This profile appeared in the Remarkable Collectors & Philanthropists feature, part of the annual special issue 50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2014.

TarraWarra Museum of Art, courtyard view.

TarraWarra Museum of Art may be celebrating its tenth birthday but in many ways its conception can be traced back to a European honeymoon in 1951.

Marc and Eva Besen’s contribution to Australian contemporary art and philanthropy is legendary. TarraWarra Museum of Art (TWMA) home to a collection that now numbers some 500 works, opened in December 2003. Its creation as a gift to the people of Australia – privately funded, publicly owned - is considered a gesture of generosity without equal.

Collectors Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO, now both in their 90s, began their appreciation for art as they began their married life. Mr Besen says, “neither of us knew very much about art, we had not grown up with art around us. We really started thinking about art when we first went to Europe on our honeymoon in 1951. We drove 11,000 miles and looked at the art in all the museums and galleries. We loved it, and thought - if painters can express themselves in such a manner, it would be beautiful to be involved with more paintings, but in our own country. When we came home we went to the few commercial galleries that were around in those days and started to buy the works we loved.”

TWMA director Victoria Lynn says that the Besens were part of a small group of collectors who were interested in cutting edge works. They purchased works by Brett Whiteley, Jeffrey Smart, John Olsen and others from the Contemporary Art Societies of Melbourne and Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s. As a consequence Lynn says, the collection “tells the story of Australian art from mid last century to today as they continue to acquire works, making bold decisions to deepen the collection.”

The progression from private collectors to public gallery creators first took seed in the late 1970s. Mr Besen says, “Eva and I had the idea of sharing our art with the public after Monash University exhibited our collection in 1976. We always thought the Yarra Valley was the perfect place to have a museum.”

Architect Alan Powell was responsible for the building design based on a brief from Mrs Besen for the museum to fit into the hillside, and be beautiful in the landscape. Mr Besen says, “we found the spot on our property with a view over the whole valley. In the late afternoon when the sun sets, it reflects the limestone and rammed earth walls, the whole building becomes golden; the most beautiful colour that you would ever imagine.”

In many respects the honeymoon continues for the Besens today at TarraWarra. Mr Besen comments, “we love to make a quiet visit there on weekends. To share the enchantment of art and to see it give other people the same kind of pleasure that it gave us, it’s what we always hoped would happen.”

Helen McKenzie

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