Milwaukee's David Wagner and The Art of the Art Deal

Jul 12, 2018

Most art curators work for museums and tend to have substantial academic credentials in art history and museum studies. David Wagner is not an art historian. His academic background is in musical performance and arts administration. But he is a curator.

Wagner’s Milwaukee-based business, David J Wagner LLC, produces and manages traveling exhibitions for museums and other cultural and scientific institutions in North America and abroad. 

Although most museums have permanent collections and curatorial staff of their own, Wagner says they "look at traveling or changing exhibitions as a hook, as something new to bring people into the door or back into the door. Most museums become fairly static if they just simply rely on their permanent collections."

David Wagner was studying applied piano when he says his career was "sideswiped" by an elective course taught by the museum director at Indiana University-Bloomington. The instructor took a liking to Wagner's work and offered him an internship at the University's museum. 

After graduating with a degree in arts administration, Wagner accepted a job as a museum director at a small art museum in Wausau. Wagner fondly recalls going to the Milwaukee Public Museum as a child, but says back then he never envisioned a career in or around museums. 

After twenty years as a museum director, Wagner started his own company to privately curate and market art exhbitions. His performing arts background also informs his curatorial work, as he considers "elements and principles of composition and design." Although the organization and discipline from his performing arts background helps Wagner's work as a curator, his curating philosophy is distinct.

"When I'm involved in curating an exhibition, I have sort of an equation. On the top side of my equation is quality. On the other hand, the underside of the equation is diversity. If I'm organizaing an exhibition of animals in art... I don't want all alligators or giraffes in the exhibition, I want a diverse environmental spectrum of all classes and all species of animals."

David Wagner produced Cory Trepanier's "Into the Arctic" exhibit, currently on display at the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay.
Credit Cory Trepanier / David J Wagner, LLC

Although Wagner appreciated his time as a museum director, he says after twenty years focusing on fundraising, public relations, and insitutional politics, he is happy to get back to what he really loves: curating exhibitions, including one currently on view at the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay; Cory Trepanier's Into the Arctic.

Trepanier's work is so compelling that at a film screening in Monaco, the Prince of Monaco announced the country wanted the entire exhibit in their museum for the summer of 2019. So that's in the works. And in the meantime, with six to ten exhibits on display somewhere in the world at any given time, David Wagner shows no signs of slowing down.