University Poster Collection Chronicles Utah Music History

Fifty years of music history and the art of the concert poster are at the heart of a collection at the University of Utah featuring posters from local venues hosting acts ranging from rock legends The Who to indie folk band The Decemberists.

“Salt Lake posters were unique,” said John Costa, a professor of rock history at the university. “It’s basically a visual encapsulation of a community.”

In the days before digital printing, shows were advertised with placards drawn by local artists. Salt Lake’s style was distinct in the use of space and color with minimal text, Costa said.

Photo: Rick Bowmer/AP
The evolution of concert poster art, on display at the University of Utah library, in Salt Lake City.

As bands traveled the country, concert promoters worked with a network of artists to produce promotional posters. In Utah, prolific poster artists included Neil Passey, who crafted many dreamy airbrush-style posters in the 1960s and 1970s, and Richard Taylor, whose psychedelic work promoted acts like the Grateful Dead.

Handmade posters have largely taken a backseat to newer technology in recent years. But there are still artists like Leia Bell, whose drawings crafted with thick black lines and blocks of color promoted years of shows at the indie music haven Kilby Court.

The collection housed at the university’s Marriott Library includes thousands of posters for local and national acts alike. They also serve as a record of live-music spots in Salt Lake City – like the Terrace Ballroom or the Fairgrounds Coliseum, aka the Dirt Palace that have faded into nightlife history.

“I think that’s what special about Salt Lake and about music culture in general, how fleeting it can be,” said Julia Huddleston, archivist at the Marriott Library. “Music venues were always popping up and always disappearing.”

While it wasn’t among the country’s highest-profile music scenes, Salt Lake City has long been a stop for groups large and small, said Ron Bitton, curator of historical maps and newspapers for the library.

“We did get a really disproportionate number of big-name bands,” he said, pointing to frequent visitors like the Dead Kennedys and Oingo Boingo.

And despite its conservative reputation as the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the city also hosted a solid hippie scene in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“There’s always a counter thing going on in Salt Lake,” Costa said.

Though the collection isn’t currently on public display, anyone who wants to see it can inquire at the special collections desk on the Marriott Library’s fourth floor.