New IMAS exec seeks cross-culture experiences

The new president and executive director of the International Museum of Art and Science in McAllen draws inspiration from renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“When two ecosystems meet, at the edge where they meet, you have the most diversity in new life forms” — this is how Ma describes what he deems the Edge Effect, and it’s also what brought Ann Fortescue to the Rio Grande Valley.

Fortescue explains that the Edge Effect can also play a role in human interactions, specifically where two or more cultures intersect: “One of the things actually that was really attractive to me was the diversity of the location and the fact that borders have what Yo-Yo Ma calls the Edge Effect — where two cultures come together and create an incredibly fertile, creative place. So I think when you get that kind of intersection, it makes the community richer than when you don’t have it.”

Enter her inspiration.

Fortescue brings with her over 35 years of museum experience, as well as plans to learn about her new environment to better tell the Valley’s stories through art.

“I started out as a museum educator, and I found that connecting museums with audiences was what I loved to do most,” Fortescue said. “As I grew in my career, I discovered that part of the reason I like the connecting part (is because it) translated well into other areas of museum work, particularly community engagement. That leads to donors and developing a strong base of support for a museum and its community.”

Fortescue’s passion for museums was not something that manifested overnight. Her love for the arts and culture is something that began when Fortescue was a young girl growing up in New York City, where she was born and raised.

As an only child of a single mother, Fortescue said she went everywhere with her. It was through this bond that the roots that would eventually bring her to South Texas were established.

In New York City, Fortescue, who lived there until she was 11 years old, said she “lucked out” with her exposure to the art scene in the Big Apple, where much of it was free to the public.

“I was exposed to a lot of it both through school as well as my mother just wanting to go to museums,” Fortescue recalled. “When she wanted to go see something, off we’d go. I would go with her to go see whatever she wanted to see, and then the trade-off was that I would get to see something that I wanted to see.

“As my husband says, I did not have a normal childhood, but I thought I did. It was a very equitable upbringing.”

The new IMAS president attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where she would soon realize her true calling, before pursuing a Masters degree in Museum Education at Bank Street College of Education in New York City.

She said she can pinpoint a course in college that particularly moved her: 19th Century European History. Fortescue was studying the change in the European economy, from agrarian to industrial.

At the time, Fortescue had what she described as a “very forward-thinking professor” who encouraged experiential learning.

“So he arranged for us to do what is called a live-in at a 19th century living historical farm,” Fortescue recalled. “We spent two days on this farm, harvesting rye with a scythe and experiencing what it was like to live as closely as we could to 19th century peasant farmers. That was when a switch went off in my head in terms of, ‘I could actually work in a museum and teach with objects.’”

This epiphany led her to grad school at Bank Street and she worked at a museum at the same time.

“You were learning the theory, and you were engaged in the practice simultaneously, which to me was the right way instead of spending time in the classroom and then going and applying it later,” she added.

The experience inspired Fortescue throughout her career, and plans to inspire at IMAS.

“I think one of the things that have been a mainstay of my career is audience engagement,” Fortescue explained. “That started out in my work as a museum educator. It’s a wonderfully transferable skill and interest. As I’ve taken on progressively more responsible positions, and now as president and executive director of the museum, audience engagement is still vital to our success.”

Fortescue said that she intends to continue nurturing strong community partnerships since starting at IMSA in July. She says that she will do this by asking the important questions of the community, which include finding the values and strengths of the Valley, according to its citizens.

“I think that, for me, my approach is to first learn from the community,” Fortescue said of her initial plans at IMAS. “… Once we sort of begin collecting all of those answers, I think that’s when people will begin to see some of those tangible results. And I’m not quite sure yet what shape they will take. They might be a program, they might be a new interactive exhibit. They might be a new community initiative. I’m not quite sure yet, because my approach really is to get to know the community first rather than to impose something that’s maybe not quite the right fit.”

Fortescue received training from the Getty’s Museum Leadership Institute, and her most recent stint was at the Springfield Museum of Art in Springfield Ohio from 2011 to 2019, where she served as executive director. She also worked at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania as the director of Education & Visitor Services between 2005 and 2010, the director of education between 1996 and 2005, assistant director for public programs between 1993 and 1996, and as education coordinator between 1990 and 1993.

Both the Springfield museum and Heinz history center are affiliates of the Smithsonian Institution.