top of page
  • Elizabeth Winga


Elizabeth Winga has some good ideas for tour questions, based on her research.

Whatever we look at with delight,

Whatever we see that gives us pleasure,

Though we may think we have forgotten it the next day— Will influence us all our lives.

George Santayana

Santayana, G. Pleasure. In Weitz, M. (Ed.), Problems in Aesthetics, pp. 637-645. New York: Macmillan Company, 1959.

Soundsuit, 2010, by Nick Cave. Metal, wood, plastic, pigments, cotton and acrylic fibers. Gift of Funds from Alida Messenger, 2011.12A,B Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art.

If you and I were to look at Nick Cave’s Soundsuit together, how would our responses be similar or different? Are there similarities underlying all art responses, no matter what one’s previous exposure has been to art? What might those similarities be? With these types of questions swimming in my mind many years ago, I embarked upon researching actual art responses of adult viewers for a master’s thesis.

At this point in my life I had already become an art guide, though not yet at Mia. My curiosity focused on what I could say or ask in my interactions with museum visitors that might truly enrich their viewing experiences. My research results emerged from asking only one question at the beginning of each one-on-one session with an adult viewer who came with some exposure to art appreciation. That question was: "What are your thoughts and feelings when you look at this artwork?"


The subjective responses to my question could be divided into various categories or types of information; these categories were then grouped into three main areas: Content, Form and Context, which are seen as concentric rectangles in the diagram below:

Diagram Credit: Elizabeth Winga

These are terms you’ve probably run across in guide training or elsewhere, but let’s do a quick review:

1. Content is the meaning of the artwork, as interpreted by the viewer. The red rectangle in the center of the diagram represents this as the heart of the viewing experience. Discerning what the artist intended may be the focus, but equally possible is that viewers are constructing their own meaning. In this process viewers are likely to draw on personal experiences and information they already know related to both Form and Context, which are described below.

2. Form includes features of the artwork itself. Guide training introduced us to these basic features of form such as imagery or subject matter, composition, materials, technique and style, as seen in the middle rectangle. The Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) included in Mia’s guide training focuses on these categories.

3. Context is information surrounding and relating to the artwork. The outside rectangle in the above diagram represents what is traditionally referred to as art history information plus more. These categories include artist biography, historical time period, cultural influences and social and psychological context. Even placement of the art in the gallery, anecdotal stories about the art and critical opinions by friends or experts in the field may affect a viewer’s art response.


To clarify the various categories within these three areas, let’s view together a Mia favorite, Vassily Kandinsky’s Study for Improvisation V on view in G371. We can use this 1910 painting to illustrate some questions a guide might ask in relation to the various categories of Content, Form and Context as discussed above. Note: you may need to adjust or rephrase these sample questions according the age level and experience of your tour group.

Study for Improvisation V, 1910, by Vassily Kandinky. Oil om pulp board. Gift of Bruce B. Dayton, 67.34.2. On view in Gallery 371. Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art.

1. Content An opening question such as “What are your feelings when you look at this artwork?” might lead to visceral reactions. The viewer may speculate about the artwork’s meaning right away. More consideration about the purpose or meaning of an artwork may emerge from many of the questions below.

2. Form

Imagery or subject matter What do you see? Do you see any shapes in this painting that you recognize? What else do you see?

Process What materials/equipment do you think the artist might have used to create this painting?

Composition How would you describe the colors that the artist used? Artists often repeat colors and lines in paintings to help it feel unified. Where do you see that the artist has repeated colors or lines in this painting?

Style – Consider showing your group another painting that illustrates a realistic style and then ask, How do you think these paintings are alike or different?

3. Context

Biographical Why might the artist have painted in this style?

Historical By glancing at other paintings in this early 20th century gallery of European paintings, how does this painting seem similar or different to you?

Cultural What imagery do you see in this painting that might tell you something about the world this artist lived in?

Social Imagine that the artist was a good friend to other artists where he was working in Germany. How might friends have impacted the way he painted?

Physical If you could walk into this painting, where would you go and why?

Critical commentsWhat is your personal reaction to this artwork? Would you like to have it in your home? Why or why not?


In giving tours over the years, this research led me to focus more on the Form and Content areas, interjecting comments and questions relating to Context only as they might contribute to a more meaningful understanding. Every tour group is different: In an actual tour, questions need to be adjusted, sometimes on the fly, to accommodate the demographic of the tour audience. For example, visitors with no previous experience in viewing art are likely to have fewer thoughts related to contextual categories. Each person’s history and experience impacts the lens they use in responding to art.

As an art guide I am hopeful that tour conversations will spark curiosity in viewers that over time will lead to deeper or broader understanding of artworks. With Mia’s global collection, I also want visitors to appreciate the role that the objects have played in their respective cultures. Most of all, I hope that visitors will be inspired and guided to create their own enriched viewing experiences.

53 views0 comments


bottom of page