Eye on the environment Andrew Cross, director of the Landscape Foundation, intends to give it a new sense of purpose and urgency
A landscape rich in prehistoric remains - in henges, barrows, tumuli and ancient tracks - but also a landscape of danger signs, exclusion zones and sudden explosions: Andrew Cross grew up on a farm on Salisbury Plain, where the presence of the army was as pervasive as the earthworks. An army that is keen now, when it suits it, to play the conservationist card, and whose precise purposes can seem as inscrutable as those of a monument like Stonehenge. For Cross, Salisbury Plain was 'full of wonderful ironies and contradictions'; it left him also with a sense of expansiveness, 'a feeling that this landscape could go on forever'. It was the perfect start in life for someone who, since last summer, has been director of the Landscape Foundation.
But Cross came to this position at a tangent, after some 15 years in the visual arts. He cut his curatorial teeth at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, and then Southampton City Art Gallery, before taking charge of the gallery at Farnham School of Art. 'While I was there I became more and more interested in projects that spilled out of the gallery and into the town,' he says. 'I started looking at the wider, environmental context of art.'
This led to London ('finally I crossed the M25') and a post as a project manager with the Public Art Development Trust, where Cross found himself questioning 'the assumption that public art is necessarily good for people'. He chose next to work as a freelance curator, with the Asia City exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery (aj 23.4.98) proving particularly significant. The six-week research trip Cross undertook for it in Asia ('the first time I'd gone further east than a Greek beach'), seeing cities in convulsive expansion and change, was a revelation: 'It made me realise that our ability to recreate our environment again and again is so exciting. To experience that Asian extreme makes you think how over-protectionist uk attitudes can be.'
Soon afterwards Cross saw the (part-time) Landscape Foundation job advertised in the The Guardian - and it struck a chord. Established in 1992 on the initiative of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, with Gillan Darley as its first director, the foundation was ripe for re-definition: 'It's my job to prove that it's a viable proposition that has value and meaning for others,' says Cross. Working three days a week, he reports to the foundation's board - a gentlemanly gathering of the great and good - each quarter.
While trying to increase the 'visibility' of the foundation, Cross has defined a theoretical framework to underpin its various activities. 'I want to look at the physical form of landscape,' he explains, 'but with an emphasis on how we engage with it.' That engagement, he argues, finds four principal forms: 'Settlement, communication, production, and consumption.' With the aim of giving conferences an edge they often lack, Cross will relate themes directly to venues - so, this March, a conference on communication will be held at Stansted Airport, reflecting the fact that 'our understanding of place has been radically altered by air travel'.
Later this year, another conference - 'After Agriculture' - will be based on the premise that, as a matter of policy, 'the agricultural industry in Britain is wound down' and ask what we should do with the land no longer needed. Four major organisations will be asked to present 'serious proposals'. Among other commitments, the foundation now collaborates with the rsa in promoting 'Art and Landscape' awards. Cross also plans to develop a series of publications (not just conference proceedings) and would love to make a film on the subject of supermarkets. 'One of our most fundamental relationships to land is in food production, but our understanding of it now extends no further than the supermarket shelf.'
When not in his Landscape Foundation role, Cross maintains curatorial interests in the visual arts - most recently for projects in Photo '98, the Arts Council's Year of Photography. But, come holiday time, landscape is back on the agenda: specifically, the American landscape, which Cross (an accomplished photographer) finds increasingly seductive. He proposed to his wife at the end of a three-week east-to-west coast drive; this year their trip takes them south through the centre of the country, travelling from Canada to Mexico on Route 83. 'Put me in the middle of Nebraska and I'm as happy as Larry,' says Cross.
Discussions on our future landscape can only profit from the involvement of someone with Cross' background; after all, the most creative landscape practitioners have always had a passion for the visual arts (as the walls of Jellicoe's Highpoint I flat used to testify). 'My responsibility is to make the issues more central and attractive - to make landscape stimulating,' says Cross. Thoughtful, committed, clearly prepared to play agent provocateur on occasion, he must have every chance of succeeding.
The Landscape Foundation is at 11 Northburgh Street, London EC1V 0AH., tel: 0171 490 4877, fax: 0171 336 0563