The Art Gallery of NSW has a new director. Expatriate Australian Michael Brand, currently at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and formerly of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, will return home to take the reins in Sydney after the 33-year tenure of Edmund Capon.

“If I could write a script for a director with the right skill base and the right qualities, it would be Michael Brand,” Steven Lowy, chair of the gallery’s board of trustees, told Crikey this morning.

“Those qualities range from the right academic skill base, the right scholarly knowledge, though to the ability to manage a building, manage the various stakeholders, whether that be the government, benefaction, staff, trustees — they’re all skills that are required for a director of a gallery of the nature of the Art Gallery of NSW. We seek to have the gallery be best-in-class, not just in Australia but also regionally and on the international stage.”

With a doctorate in art history from Harvard, Brand has first-class academic credentials. His knowledge of international fine art is impeccable, as evidenced by his role as an adviser to the Harvard Art Museum and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. At the Getty, he occupied one of the premier positions in international art, leading a gallery in the very top rank of global art institutions.

Brand’s career path has been stellar. Beginning in Canberra in the 1980s, he worked in the Asian art section of the National Gallery before moving to Brisbane to play a key role in the Queensland Art Gallery’s expansion into Asian art under Doug Hall, including shows such as the second Asia-Pacific Triennial, an exhibition notable for introducing Australian audiences to the outsized talent of Takashi Murakami. From there he moved to head up a regional gallery in the US, the Virginia Museum of the Fine Arts in Richmond, before getting the big gig at the Getty.

All that is worth about $445,000 annually to the gallery. It’s a huge increase over Capon’s outgoing salary of $260,000, and puts Brand into the top tier of public servant salaries in Australia. For comparison, the Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court earned $412,390 in 2011, while federal mandarins like Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus and Auditor-General Ian McPhee are paid about half a million dollars a year. Of course, everyone trails Reserve Bank supremo Glenn Stevens, who takes home more than $1 million.

On the other hand, if we compare Dr Brand’s salary with that of many of the artists working in Australia’s visual arts sector, the comparison is rather more flattering. The latest Australia Council data from respected economist David Throsby shows just how tough the average professional visual artist in this country is doing: the average creative income for visual artists in 2007-08 was a paltry $15,300. The median income was a penurious $4500.

The poverty of visual artists at the grassroots is of course proverbial. The art world has long been understood by economists to operate in a “winner-takes-all” sweepstakes, in which a lucky few superstars can command millions for the sale of their work, while the vast majority toil in obscurity. What’s interesting about the increasing salaries for top gallery directors is that this “superstar economics” model now seems to be developing for top curators as well.

“Michael Brand didn’t come here for the money,” Lowy explained this morning. “Michael’s taken a pay cut to come here form Toronto, and he took a pay cut to go to Toronto from the Getty. He came here because he sees the next era at the art gallery as a very exciting career for him.” Brand also wanted to return to Australia, where he has two teenage children.

At the Getty and the Aga Khan Museum, Brand was exposed to the sinews of international art finance in a time when contemporary art values have rocketed into the stratosphere. For many outside the art world, the sheer scale of the money involved in the international art markets can be difficult to grasp. In 2008, at the height of the contemporary art bubble, Damien Hirst staged his own auction with Sotheby’s. It pulled in roughly $200 million, while billionaire Russian art collector Victor Pinchuk is thought to have spent $US180 million with Jay Jopling’s White Cube gallery in a single year.

The stratospheric prices for contemporary art make collecting notable examples of it almost impossible for Australian galleries, even established ones such as the Art Gallery of NSW. Zhang Xiaogang, perhaps China’s best-known contemporary artist, is hardly a household name, but acquiring one of his signature paintings from the “Bloodlines” series — if one were available — would probably cost at least $10 million (in 2011, an earlier work of Zhang Xioagang’s sold at Sotheby’s for $US10.1 million).

The sheer amount of money washing around global art markets helps us to understand how a gallery director such as Brand can be worth nearly half a million dollars a year. There is in fact an international market for top curators, many of which can all expect to earn comfortably more than the rates Australian galleries pay. “I can assure you that internationally this is not really competitive from the salary perspective,” Lowy said.

Whether this is good for the art world itself is a different question. There are surely talented, qualified curators in Australia who would be happy to work for Capon’s old salary of a mere $260,000. But the Art Gallery of NSW wanted a top international director, and they don’t come cheap.

It’s a reminder that the global economic forces that drive income inequality are in operation across most of the sectors of our economy. The art world is just as exposed to global markets as any local manufacturer or miner. So it shouldn’t surprise us when key players in that world also enjoy the spoils of our winner-takes-all society.