Nike Wagner grew up in Bayreuth. She studied musicology, theatre studies and literature in Berlin, Chicago, Paris and Vienna and wrote her doctorate on Karl Kraus and the eroticism of Viennese modernism (Suhrkamp 1981).
Since 1975 Nike Wagner has worked as a freelance cultural scientist and has contributed to international symposia and colloquia. As an author, she became known for her work on the cultural and intellectual history during the European turn of the century, and as a critic and essayist she became known for her examination of Richard Wagner and Bayreuth. Wagner's work in the context of German history as well as the interweaving of family, work and cultural history are the subject of her publications Wagnertheater (1982) and Traumtheater (2001).
Between 1985 and 1987 Nike Wagner was a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and in 1999 she became a member of the German Academy for Language and Poetry. In 2003 she was appointed expert of the Enquête Commission "Culture in Germany" of the German Bundestag and in 2012 she was awarded the honorary professorship of the Heidelberg University of Education.
From 2004 to 2013 Nike Wagner was the artistic director of the Kunstfest Weimar "pèlerinages". In November 2013 she was awarded the Thuringian Order of Merit for a dramaturgy that set artistic standards in the interplay of music, dance, image and word.
Since 2014 she has been the artistic director and managing director of the Beethovenfest Bonn.