At the Milwaukee Art Museum, student groups are greeted with views of Lake Michigan, the city, and the museum’s open arms, or rather, “wings.” Designed by famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the Quadracci Pavilion portion of the building features the Burke Brise Soleil, an awning that looks like metal wings embracing the lake and lakefront trail around the museum’s campus. The wings open with the museum, close and reopen at noon, and close again when the museum closes, weather permitting. Amy Kirschke, director of adult, docent, and school programs, refers to the museum as the largest piece of art students will see during their trip.

The Milwaukee Art Museum holds over 30,000 pieces in its collection, with about a third on display at any given time. The museum is home to a collection of collections, which includes exceptional holdings in contemporary photography, minimalism, the Ashcan School, folk and self-taught art, Haitian art, Dutch and Flemish painting, Baroque art, European modernism, and 19th-century German art.

Art as a mirror and a window

Student groups can decide how they want to take in the art. For a specific interest, a collection-based tour or thematic tour is best. Tours can also cover the museum’s general highlights. Kirschke recommends focusing on architecture for groups unsure of a niche interest but encourages students to take the time to view whatever they find delightful.

Teen Night, Milwaukee Art Museum
Credit: Milwaukee Art Museum

“They should be open to what they discover and what members of their group notice,” Kirschke says. “I hope they have an open mind and open ears. I hope they see art as a mirror and a window—that they find things they see themselves in or a window into another life or time.”

While standard groups may include up to 120 individuals, students are broken into smaller groups with one docent for 10 students. All tours are led by volunteer docents, many of whom have been with the museum a long time and are practiced in emphasizing student participation. Docents design conversational activities to let students share their interpretations of pieces and learn from each other. Every docent has a plan, but Kirschke says there’s always a “pull-over” during tours if a student points out an artwork.

“Visiting art museums is a way to build your confidence,” Kirschke says. “How to start to look closely at a work of art, how the artist made decisions, the message they’re trying
to convey. I can see that lightbulb come on in students. It’s almost like watching something click. They walk away feeling like, ‘I can do this, I can go out and look at a work and start to notice and make interpretations,’ and add that to their toolkit.”

Wow-worthy art

Kirschke says recent “wow” pieces for students often revolve around work that features social justice, so much so that the museum has a social justice-themed tour. Contemporary art is also popular among students because the art was created during their time. Kirschke says museum favorites include the German clock collection and Duane Hanson’s Janitor sculpture that visitors often ask for directions to because of its lifelike nature.

Teen Night, Milwaukee Art Museum
Credit: Milwaukee Art Museum

An ideal day at the museum might include an hour for a guided tour, an hour break for food on-site or a walk outside near the lake, and then another hour or hour and a half for a self-guided tour of the museum. The Milwaukee Art Museum is fully accessible, with ASL interpreters on request and listening devices available.

Additional resources at the Milwaukee Art Museum include an art-pack station, family guides, architecture guides, and other activities like studio workshop experiences and the Writing and Art tour, where students get journals and writing exercises. Each student receives a free family pass for a future visit before leaving.

For more information on the Milwaukee Art Museum, call 414-224-3200 or go to

Main image and credit: Milwaukee Art Museum

Article by Kristen Nichols