Prodigal Father: Wagner Museum of Art to Return to East Cleveland
Since his death in 2006, Rev. Albert Wagner’s family has been working to establish a museum to commemorate the self-taught artist and minister. After many years and setbacks, the Wagner Museum of Art has officially been established as a nonprofit.
Bonita Wagner Johnson, the reverend’s daughter and driving force behind the museum, said she is also close to regaining ownership of Albert’s East Cleveland home. The house, currently held by the Cuyahoga Land Bank, was where the reverend made his hundreds of paintings and sculptures. It was a piece of art itself, with a brightly painted exterior and placards exclaiming “COME HOME ETHIOPIA” and “JESUS LOVE YOU.” The house has always been Wagner Johnson’s first choice as a site for the museum.
The Land Bank and East Cleveland’s mayor’s office have supported Wagner Johnson’s efforts to reacquire the property, she said. She has been promised additional help by many other community members. The support has almost overwhelmed her.
“Have you ever been so filled up you can’t cry? Filled up with joy or sadness? I’m overjoyed, but I guess I can cry,” Wagner Johnson said said.
Born to Arkansas sharecroppers in 1924, Wagner began his artistic career at age 50 after a mystical experience. He worked relentlessly, often with found or recycled materials. Most of his paintings depicted Biblical scenes, or commented on African American life. His sometimes scathing, brimstone-scented works made him a controversial figure. Even still, he earned respect for his prolific output, his mentoring of younger artists like Michelangelo Lovelace, and singular style.
Wagner did not write a will before his death at age 82, leaving his legacy uncertain. His house carried heavy taxes, and few of his painting sales were documented. In 2012, Wagner’s children partnered with Gray’s Auctioneers in Cleveland to sell hundreds of the reverend’s works. Though parting with so much of her fathers’ artworks was difficult, Wagner Johnson said the sale achieved something the reverend always wanted.
“That wasn’t a sad story. He wanted his art to go into peoples’ homes, all over the world,” she said.
Wagner Johnson still has dozens of her fathers’ artworks, and says collectors continue to donate pieces to the museum. She also has kept significant personal items like Wagner’s bed, where he often painted late into the night. Once the museum opens, these items will not only preserve the reverend’s legacy of ministry and art, but foster an environment for new creativity. Wagner Johnson hopes the museum can eventually host art and music classes for children and adults.
Last week, Alenka Banco, executive director of the Cleveland Arts Prize, put out a call for support for the museum. Banco had previously worked with Wagner Johnson at the Northeast Shores Development Corporation.
Besides financial contributions, Banco said the museum is seeking electricians, carpenters, painters, and other laborers to help renovate the East Cleveland house. Banco said that the art community’s response has been exciting.
“I know we will be able to have the impact we need with volunteers. This project will depend on that. And once the public begins to see progress, I know donations will begin to come in,” Banco wrote in an email. “There are so many individuals with a strong connection to the Reverend and Sister Bonita, and [are] committed to making sure the museum becomes a reality.”
Banco said that she and a core group of supporters were discussing next steps for the museum. She said that a public meeting will be held once a plan of action is outlined.
Read CAN Journal’s previous coverage of the Wagner Museum of Art here.