The first grand plan for National Gallery of Australia died in the mid-1970s along with the Lucky Country. Until then, the vision was to feature forty masterpieces from across the millennia, supported by clusters of lesser works in every media. When the building opened in 1982, the collection possessed a few of those core works.

Even then, the Gallery had photographs, prints and fabrics to make Canberra “worth the detour” - if only enough of them had been on display.

Forty years on from the original conception, the NGA has a new master, Ron Radford. As Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, he furnished that institution into storehouse for art of variable quality. In Canberra, he promises fewer but better.

To this end he proposes a run of about-turns. On no major point can I find fault. Yet, my reservations are more than quibbles. 

The shadow across Radford’s vision is his manner of expressing it. No noun or verb is allowed in public unadorned. Such indiscipline suggests a slackness of thought which could stain the judgement brought to acquisitions. Yet, art lovers can be grateful that he has not abandoned prose for dotpoints.

All but one of the icons from the original policy come from the past 130 years. Radford intends to concentrate the non-Australian acquisitions on this period.

He admits that prime pieces from this era are among the priciest. He is in no doubt that the $2m. paid for the Picasso cardboard cut-out did not purchase genius.

Radford’s kite that the Future Fund could invest in some of the $30-40m. examples he wants was never going to fly, but the thought merits applause for willingness to think outside the ledger. The sadness is that the money needed for an early Kandinsky had been available from donors under his predecessor.

Radford intends to identify the lacunae in the collection before papering over the blank spots with lots of money. This preparation of a shopping list carries the danger of attracting pimps.

The rule is to buy against the market. That approach can mean waiting till a name slips from fashion. More demanding still is the courage and expertise to buy works that have fallen from grace or from artists who are yet to establish their full worth.

By getting rid of the scatter of pre-1850 European pieces, the only loss to excellence will be the Rubens self-portrait. Its removal from Canberra, however, will spare the Portrait Gallery from invidious comparisons.

One reason for retaining ownership of the Rubens is as a bargaining chip when seeking loans from around the world. The goodwill from MOMA towards the NGA after lending “Blue Poles” could extend to a long-term loan of the Barnett Newman or Cy Tomby that Radford wishes to pick up.

An alarm bell sounded when Radford advocates accepting private collections. The National Gallery of Victoria has just landed itself with a floor of Australian works that would have been a blessing for a regional city but, for the most part, are below museum quality. Similarly, the desirable works in the recently cobbled-together survey of Australian Surrealism are scarce. Again that job lot would do very nicely to attract tourists to a distant suburb.

A related concern is the granting of naming rights over galleries to donors. What if another art patrone ends up in prison?

Any reshaping of the collection depends on a make-over of the building. Since a further refit is now on the cards we need not catalogue the failings of the original. More public spaces will be added, and the existing areas realigned. Sculpture will return to its ideal location. The Australian collection will be taken out of the attic. 

At last we have a director who is not embarrassed to accept Australia as the focus for the gallery and as the reference point for every area of the collection. 

Despite an eagerness to cut to the root, Radford will reinforce two left-over: the Blockbuster and Aboriginal art.

The tourist touts demand a Blockbuster once a year. Where are these to be found? Melbourne has presented four since its reopening, only one of which – the Munch - matched the hype or met the standards expected from so self-important an institution.

Australian art has too few big names to keep the turn-styles spinning. Radford mentions backing some esoteric shows by Regional Galleries to tour a provincial light. Let’s hope this collaboration soon extends to Meldrum and his school.

The second dead-hand is the fashion for Aboriginal art. Radford dares not ask how many day-trippers look upon non-figurative paintings by indigenes as impositions on the public, like the New York Abstractions. The NGA has never known how to handle the funeral poles. Radford hopes to preserve them in the reception area, instead of placing them in the sculpture garden where they would complete their life-cycle by rotting.

At a time when our Libraries are turning themselves into entertainment lounges, Radford’s endorsement of a Centre of Australian Art, his praise for the NGA’s Library, and his acceptance that art museums must publish or perish are admirable. The proof will be in the balance between glossy picture books, scholarly guides for temporary exhibitions and the background catalogues for segments of the permanent collection. Such research will need sponsors.

In any organisation, the surprise is not that reforms turn out less well than intended. The amazing thing is that anything ever happens at all. Should Radford get 300 per cent approval for his prospectus, even someone with his exuberance will be hard pushed to have the refit and re-hang in place before 2015.