Wagner holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, obtained in 1980 under the direction of Erich Heller. She is the author of several important books on a variety of subjects, which include Karl Kraus (Geist und Geschlecht: Karl Kraus und die Erotik der Wiener Moderne, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1982 — a work based on her doctoral dissertation) and the Wagner family (The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2001). Her article questioning the propriety of public subsidies given to high-profile cultural events in general, and the Bayreuth Festival in particular (at present c.US$6.5 million annually), Im Fadenkreuz der Kulturpolitik, published in the July 2006 issue of Cicero: Magazin für politische Kultur, engendered controversy within Germany.
In 2004, Wagner became the director of the Kunstfest Weimar, later renamed the Pèlerinages Festival in honour of Liszt. She stood down from the post in September 2013. In 2013, she was named the director of the Beethovenfest, and assumed this post in January 2014.
Jan Brachmann, ‘Das Zertrümmern ist langweilig geworden: Nike Wagner über Heimweh, Autoritäten, Bayreuther Marktlärm und ostdeutsche Kaffeepausen’, Berliner Zeitung, August 21, 2004, p. M4 (Magazin Section) [an interview with Nike Wagner].
David Littlejohn, [untitled review of Nike Wagner’s The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty], Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, vol. 58, No. 4 (June 2002), pp. 828–831.