Ulla Searing, a notable Sarasota philanthropist and supporter of the arts and education community, died Thursday, June 28. She was 99.
A longtime donor to many local institutions, including Circus Sarasota, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota Ballet, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Searing is remembered by friends for her generosity, passion for the arts and her sense of humor — and fashion.
“Whenever she came out, she was impeccably dressed,” said Larry Thompson, President of Ringling College of Art and Design. “She always had her white gloves. She was the lady of Sarasota in terms of her fashion. She went to more events, concerts and performances than you can even dream of, even up until the end.”
Searing’s major donation contributions included a new wing at the Ringling Museum of Art; as well as a sizable donation and scholarship fund at Ringling College.
“She was probably the most significant, individual game-changer for the arts and community nonprofits in Sarasota in the last 100 years,” said Mark Famiglio, a longtime friend and co-executor of her estate. “She’s contributed over $25 million over the years, and she’s had such an impact on small charities as well.”
The Famiglio family became close with Searing over the years, and Jennie Lascelle Famiglio remembers Searing’s commitment to both the arts and to making a difference in people’s lives.
“Ulla is an old Norse name that means will and determination,” she wrote in an email. “It could not have been a more perfect choice for a woman with such a radiant and beautiful spirit and an unwavering commitment to making a difference. I admired so many things about her – she truly was an extraordinary amalgam of strength and tenderness, intelligence and modesty, generosity and responsibility, and majesty and great kindness.”
Born in Sweden, Searing and her late husband Arthur Searing, who worked for AIG, began visiting Sarasota in the early 1970s. Not having any children of her own, Searing involved herself heavily in the Sarasota arts scene.
“She really was the mother of the arts here in Sarasota,” said Thompson. “She was a major benefactor for so many of the arts institutions. She loved Ringling, she loved the students, and she was adamant about the importance of art and culture to younger people. She really understood how beneficial that is to living a successful life.”
In addition to being a figure in the arts scene, Searing was also known for her sense of humor and emphasis on etiquette.
“We met many years ago at a dinner party in my hometown of Tuxedo Park, (New York.) ” Longtime friend Scott George said. “We became friends immediately, because we had the same, very wicked sense of humor. That was Ulla. People who knew her for a long time knew how funny, smart, witty and slightly wicked she was.”
Searing bequethed $2 million to the Sarasota Ballet. Ballet director Iain Webb remembers Searing for her energy and devotion to Sarasota's youth.
"She was such an elegant lady," said Webb. "She had this amazing twinkle in her eye. Our organization will never forget her. She was really special to us all."
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