If you had walked into Richland College’s Brazos Gallery on the evening of September 3, 2010, you would not have seen a single painting on a wall, sculpture on a pedestal, or print in a frame. Instead, you would have seen a strange, machine-like object in the center of the room, flashing lights and laser projections. The piece, Personal Victories, by artist Richie Budd, wasn’t exactly something you would find in the galleries in the Design District. It was a multimedia experience, the kind of art spectacle that you imagine confronting in a gallery in London’s Tate Modern or at a special installation at Mass MoMA. But was it art? It felt more like a performance than object. 

Richland College gallery coordinator Ryder Richards got the same sort of puzzlement from the art department administration when he proposed hosting the exhibition of Budd’s work. “They said, ‘Well, do you think it is art?’ ” Richards says. “And I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ And they said, ‘Okay, let’s go for it.’ ”

The attitude reflects one of Richland College’s guiding principals: “Responsible risk taking.” As an academic institution, Richland has the luxury of remaining somewhat independent of commercial trends and fashions, of pushing boundaries. But in the context of the Dallas art scene, Richland’s approach to its on-campus gallery space means so much more. Under Richards’ guidance, Richland joins a handful of other schools—such as Brookhaven College and Tarrant County College—that use their on-campus galleries to fill a void in the local art scene for alternative spaces, where emerging and established artists can create museum-style work, mount noncommercial exhibitions, or explore off-the-beaten-path projects.

“Most of the work I show is not anything purchasable,” Richards says. “Which is, I think, just an extension of myself, my own personal value system. What I think about art is how it should be pushing the envelope rather than engaging overly in commercial enterprise.”

This approach might seem like a luxury, but the fact is, when it comes to alternative spaces, Dallas has an embarrassing shortage. When Richards had a show in San Antonio last year, he found about a dozen independently owned alternative art spaces. When SMU awarded its annual Meadows Prize to New York-based art collective Creative Time and asked them to study the North Texas art scene for a year, one of the group’s top recommendations was the city needed to foster more alternative art spaces. These spaces are a necessary incubator of artistic talent. When art students graduate, these venues offer the opportunity for first shows. They also offer space to mount ambitious exhibitions by more established artists who don’t want to risk putting up a commercial flop that could injure their reputations. 

There have been some sputtering attempts to fill the void in Dallas. More than 30 years ago, 500x, the oldest artist-run art space in Texas, was established for precisely this reason. One of the Dallas Contemporary’s many incarnations tried to perform this function. And Guerilla Arts was founded in 2009 to address the need for more space for young artists to show. But the void remains. As a result, we lose artists and art students to other cities. That’s where the community colleges come in: providing gap coverage. 

“Being part of an institution, you have to take into account what is beneficial for the institution, so I can’t exactly go off on my own tangents,” Richards says. “But at the same time, they hired me for a certain reason. And so coming up with these kinds of shows that fill voids is a good idea. It is also one way that we can stay relevant and interesting, and I don’t know if that can happen in other places.”

Richland’s show this month, “Response,” is a perfect example of how Richards leverages his gallery space. The exhibition is being mounted by the Culture Laboratory Collective, a group of artists from all over the United States that has a large representation in Texas. They have been provided with a sentence by Ben Lewis, an award-winning British writer, director, and presenter of the television show Art Safari, and each artist will create a work in reaction to a single word in that sentence. 

The problem with the collective, Richards says, is that the artists are often all working on their own, dispersed across the country, with few opportunities to come together and engage with each other’s work. The show is designed to end that isolation, if only temporarily. But you could also see the show as a metaphor for how Richards uses Richland College’s space. Like Lewis’ sentence, the open nature of the college gallery creates interaction among artists.

“That was kind of the reason for setting up this sentence-based structure and bringing in an outside party, so that we were under a different set of conditions,” Richards says. “The more bizarre the show looks, it will only help, because we will only have the sentence structure tying the show together.”

The show might work, or it might fail aesthetically. But it’ll go up, and people will see it. In this town, that counts as a success.

Write to peter.simek@dmagazine.com.