Investigating Inequalities in Art and Culture

Peggy Levitt teaching a sociology class in fall 2022.
Image credit: Karen Osuna ’25
Author  Shannon O'Brien
Published on 

Peggy Levitt, Mildred Lane Kemper Professor of Sociology at Wellesley, believes there is a lack of diversity in artistic, academic, and cultural institutions around the world that is largely due to what she calls an “inequality pipeline” that excludes broader experiences outside the Western and industrialized nations known as the Global North.

Levitt has received funding from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh to explore these ideas in a book project called Move Over Mona Lisa, Move Over Jane Eyre: Making the World's Museum's, Universities, and Libraries More Welcoming to Everyone. She says she plans to trace the inequality pipeline in the fields of art history and comparative literature to shine a light on the “persistent intractable inequalities” that leave out so many people, ideas, cultural objects, and ways of knowing.

The inequality pipeline creates barriers at every step of the way for artists, authors, educators, and theorists who work outside the traditional centers of power. It is at play when a child in the West has access to art supplies and instruction, while a child outside the region does not. Or when literature written in English is translated and circulates widely around the world, while books written in Swahili, Hindi, or Arabic are available primarily to audiences who speak those languages. And it extends to what gets included in art history and comparative literature textbooks and classrooms.

Levitt says not only does the pipeline cause people in the Global North to miss out on ideas and culture produced in places that have been deemed “marginal,” but it also perpetuates power imbalances. “The power is so skewed in the hands of a few anointing institutions and anointing canonizers that so many people who are incredibly talented and have so much to say and so much to teach are left out of the conversation,” she says.

Levitt is a co-founder of The Global (De)Centre (GDC), an international network of scholars, culture makers, cultural managers, and people who use art in their activism who are committed to creating, disseminating, teaching about, and acting upon knowledge in more inclusive ways. The GDC, she says, makes space for ”different kinds of conversations that are more humble and respectful and collaborative.”

This semester, Levitt is on sabbatical to work on a first draft of the book. She says she doesn’t expect to create a to-do list for readers, but rather will say, “Here’s what I saw when I went out and looked, and here’s how some museums, libraries, and universities are doing things differently.