Album covers are just as important as the records heard behind them

By Troy Doetch

DeKALB | Peter Olson’s dad didn’t appreciate his son’s records.

The assistant director of the NIU Art Museum and curator of Tuesday’s “Listening to the Sounds that Inspired the Graphics” event, Olson said he had to explain to his father why he was filling the display cases of Altgeld Hall with the vinyl albums of Kraftwerk and Multi-Death Corporation. As one musical revolutionary once said, “Parent’s just don’t understand.”

“The question is, ‘A museum? Isn’t that where you’re supposed to go to see something that is really rare or really special or is grand achievement? Why would you have something in a museum that anyone could go get for a couple of dollars?'” Olson said. “My response would be, ‘there are things that anybody can get for two dollars that have a lot of visual sophistication and artistic integrity to them and it’s kind of miraculous that anyone can go get them for two dollars.'”

The event was a guided tour of “Graphics of Their Time,” a showcase of iconic album covers and sheet music at the NIU Art Museum. Olson wheeled a stereo down the hall and, from his iPod, played tracks that were originally released on the records displayed. He explained how album covers, which were originally developed by companies as packaging, became a relevant vehicle of expression.

Natalie Brulc, graduate student of fine arts and painting, agreed with Olson that the covers translated music into visual images.

“I was surprised because I did study some graphic design as an undergrad, so I understand that it takes a lot to get the concept out and also to be able to sell the piece,” Brulc said. “I think a lot of the work actually speaks for the music. Some of the music I did recognize: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Decemberists, and Joan Jett. I really think that the pictures convey a lot of what the music is.”

Olson explained that since the Beatles released Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, musical and visual artists have been collaborating on the medium of album covers to release sophisticated graphics. Because almost everyone has a music collection, the general population has acquired a sophisticated taste for visual images.

“What really struck me the most in doing this whole show was the contribution on a mass scale to this kind of visual literacy that record designs have had,” Olson said. “It’s something that almost everybody has in their house, and I just thought of it as this little mini art collection. A lot of real art people would say, ‘Oh geeze, he’s lost his mind. An art collection? It’s just a bunch of records!’ Well, I went to art school; I know for a fact that there are people that spend a lot more time and invest a lot more intelligence, depth, visual thought and sophistication into one of these covers than they would into a painting on canvas.”