The chatter of school kids bounces off the travertine floors. The Art Gallery of NSW is buzzing with visitors heading to three temporary exhibitions on a sparkling autumn morning. Amid the throng, a lean man in a cream jacket and owlish spectacles passes unnoticed.
The gallery's incoming director, Michael Brand, is not yet the instantly recognisable figure he will become. For now, he can wander past artworks or down the escalator to the cafe without being bailed up by visitors keen to share their opinion on what is - or is not - on display. Not that such a prospect bothers him. He is glad the gallery elicits strong views.
''That's good, they're paying attention,'' he says. ''They say, 'What's he doing? He's taken down my favourite painting - or my least favourite'. You want people to have opinions, have a dialogue.''
Surveying his new domain in civvies is something of a novelty for Brand. For the past two years, he has become accustomed to donning a hard hat and steel-capped boots as a consultant to the Aga Khan Museum under construction in Toronto.
We retreat to the director's bare corner office where, on a brief visit to Sydney before he takes up his role in June, Brand is camped out.
Beside the window, with its sweeping view to the Botanic Gardens and harbour, the bookshelves sit empty, a sight which must look to an intellectual such as Brand as incongruous as an empty fridge to a foodie. Brand is poised to make his mark.
The gallery is fortunate to have snaffled Brand. That was the consensus when it was announced he would succeed the ebullient Edmund Capon, who had retired after 33 years. Indeed, when Capon decided it was finally time to call it quits, one of the first people he told was Brand.
The two men share a specialty in Asian art - Brand is an India specialist - and a fondness for zipping about in Minis. Thoughtful and incisive, Brand is more scholar than showman. It seems safe to assume that a ''F--- off, I'm smoking'' sign will not grace his office door as it did that of his predecessor.
Canberra-born Brand arrives at the gallery after more than a decade in North America, including as director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and with a dazzling international network that includes the heads of the Hermitage, Louvre, Pompidou, the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate.
Brand, 54, is a man of the world. French, Italian, Hindi, Urdu and Persian are among the languages he speaks. His expertise is the art of the past but he is keen on contemporary art and plans to be on deck in Sydney in time for the Biennale.
He wants to connect the gallery internationally and to examine what this means in an era of instant communication and long-haul flights.
''I don't want to go back to the old-fashioned idea and say, 'Why should we be confined by our region? Let's go back to being interested in Europe and North America','' he says. ''… If Shanghai is meant to be more important because it's 'regional', what about Santiago? Shanghai might be a 10-hour flight, Santiago might be, what, a 13-hour flight? We have to be careful in the 21st century of still thinking - as if the boat is leaving Southampton - that Malacca is nearby but Los Angeles isn't.''
As a collection grows over 100 years it is reasonable to assume that some works will never be displayed.
Brand's background has shaped his international orientation. Growing up in Canberra in the 1950s and '60s, he recalls it not as a provincial, white-bread backwater masquerading as a capital but the place that first opened a window onto a wider world.
''It was such a small city but there were lots of diplomats … In your playgroups you had kids from all different parts of the world,'' he says.
Art, too, was part of the fabric of his early life. His mother took art lessons from John Coburn and the family attended small gallery openings.
''It meant I had works of art in front of me, of whatever quality,'' he says.
En route to Washington when his economist father became a director of the International Monetary Fund, Brand had his first encounter with international art - thanks to an unusual flight schedule that reached the US via Tahiti and Mexico.
''I think it was called the fiesta route instead of the kangaroo route,'' he says. In Papeete, he saw the Paul Gauguin Museum and in Mexico City his first international art museum, the imposing National Museum of Anthropology with its collection of pre-Columbian art.
''We arrived there on a Christmas Day … this great modernist structure with this amazing material in it,'' he says. ''I've had a strange introduction.''
His unorthodox entree continued when, as a 15-year-old, he travelled with his older brother, David, to India and Nepal. It was the pre-Lonely Planet hippie era when few other Westerners ventured to such then off-the-beaten track places such as Kathmandu. Brand was entranced. ''We got to see Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, Mughal [architecture], the Taj Mahal,'' he says. ''It was also seeing it in situ.
''We'd go to a temple and there were people worshipping and there was a level of chaos, a level of focus, a bit of chanting, a bit of music, incense, things with offerings poured over them and dressed up. It made a huge impact.''
It prompted Brand, who studied at Canberra's Australian National University and Harvard, to become an Indian art specialist. After he married a fellow ANU student, Tina Gomes, a food writer whose family are Malaysian Indian, the pair honeymooned in Lahore, Pakistan.
Brand had a Smithsonian Institution grant to research Mughal gardens. Much of the time was spent, tape measure in hand, in the city's magnificent Shalimar Gardens - as he dodged cricket balls lobbed by kids who found the World Heritage site an ideal pitch.
He was the curator of Asian art at the National Gallery of Australia from 1988 before becoming assistant director at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1996. He left Australia in 2000 for Richmond, Virginia, to become director of the Virginia Museum.
Before he has his feet under the desk or books on the shelf, he is not about to talk detailed plans for the Art Gallery of NSW. But on one potentially contentious area he is unequivocal. He regards selling works in the collection, or deaccessioning, as appropriate.
''When you think about what it costs to store works for eternity, as a collection grows over 100 years it is reasonable to assume that some works will never be displayed,'' he says. ''But you have to be very careful to know why you are deaccessioning and there are professional guidelines that money from deaccessioning can only go to acquire other works of art. But if you do it properly, it's entirely appropriate.''
His priority in Sydney will be getting to know the collection and talking to the gallery's curators.
''What have they acquired recently? What are they thinking of acquiring? Do they know any collectors who are collecting in certain areas who may be predisposed to supporting the museum in the future? Find out about past failures, things they were trying to get and didn't get and what happened. Look at funding options.''
He would also like more space. The building on its present site has reached capacity. He did not come with a defined brief to oversee the creation of a new building.
''But when I was talking to the trustees, we did talk about space,'' he says. ''They're thinking about those issues very actively.''
It is what will be on the walls that will command the public's attention. The gallery has a strong track record of scholarship and curating its own exhibitions, which Brand is keen to continue. He doesn't rule out taking the travelling blockbuster - shows that have typically come to our shores in recent years when an overseas museum has closed for renovations. But allshows need to have an idea behind them and to involve the gallery's curators, including visiting exhibitions.
''What you don't want is a couple of directors saying, 'Hey, we're closing down, we're trying to make some money, would you like to take our exhibition and show it for three months? We've packaged up 100 paintings to send to 10 different countries, if you want to be part of it you can'.''
Brand is himself a distinguished curator, including such early landmark shows as The Age of Angkor,The Vision of Kings and Indian Bronzes for the National Gallery of Australia. Would he curate himself?
''It would be very nice to and I think so, it's good to be part of the creative process. But I want to be wary of that. There's nothing worse than a director promising and six months later doesn't have time and says [to a curator], 'I've picked all the pieces, can you just finish it up for me and write the catalogue?' If you're going to do it, you've got to do it properly.''
He points out that at the Tate in London all senior staff, including director Sir Nicholas Serota, curate a show every couple of years. Serota was an adviser to the gallery on the search for Capon's successor and a factor in Brand's decision to accept his new role. Brand consulted Serota - with Steve Lowy's blessing - about the position. So what did Serota tell him?
''[To the effect that] 'This is in fact a great opportunity. It's a wonderful organisation and you have wonderful potential for collaborating with colleagues internationally','' Brand says. ''In a way I knew that but it was good to hear it from someone like Nick, who has very, very high standards.''
Brand didn't intend to stay overseas so long. Initially, he and his wife wanted to give their two daughters, now teenagers, an overseas experience. But way leads unto way.
''The cliche is you can't really plan your own career and what I've always tried to do is be open to interesting opportunities,'' he says.