Conspire celebrates its fourth anniversary downtown, looks toward future

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A backyard skate ramp is among Conspire's new features, along with a different menu. Over 200 people gathered at the co-op over the weekend to celebrate its fourth anniversary at its current location. (Stephanie Snyder/DD)

More than 200 people gathered at Conspire this weekend to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the artist collective at its current location on the corner of North Fifth and East Garfield streets with live art, band performances and group activities.

Run as a cooperative among several local artists that volunteer their time and money to maintain the space, Conspire operates as a vegan cafe, coffee shop, music venue, gallery, boutique and, most recently, an attraction for skateboarders with a newly built skate ramp in the backyard.

While the weekend’s festivities were successful in attracting community members, Conspire Creative Designer Joey Grether said the past year has been somewhat of a struggle since John Sagasta left Conspire after five years to open Jobot Coffee Shop across the street.

“John pulled out last year and opened Jobot because he felt there were limitations to the project, which there can be,” Grether said. “He’s been doing really great over there.”

In a fight to become profitable because daily sales are needed to keep the cooperative afloat, Grether said Conspire is working to revamp efforts in the kitchen by featuring a new menu and getting more people involved in the cooperative that have kitchen experience.

The addition of the skateboard ramp will also hopefully attract new business, Grether said, especially since there are not many skateboarding venues nearby.

“Not a lot is happening around here,” Grether said. “Now and again during events you’ll get a lot of people or something, but typically it’s just dead. To me, (Conspire) is this wide-open, explosive platform for creation and exchange, and I just feel like it’s being under-utilized.”

Running Conspire as a cooperative instead of a traditional business is an experiment Grether has been dedicated to for the past six years – with four years on Fifth Street – to give artists and designers the opportunity to participate in a free market where everyone is responsible for maintaining its success.

“It’s more able to prepare itself for catastrophe,” Grether said. “There’s many hands to help and certain people have different resources that they can contribute.”

Graeme Lithgow, a local musician and artist of various media, immediately started coming to Conspire after moving to Phoenix from Vancouver three and a half years ago because of the welcoming nature of the space.

“It’s definitely a comfort zone for me,” Lithgow said. “I wouldn’t be in Arizona anymore if it wasn’t for this place.”

Lithgow, who has been working for Conspire for the past year, said the collective has seen great success – whether it is earning a profit or not – because of the diverse people included in the project.

“Conspire, as far as changing culture and bringing people together, has been monumentally successful,” he said. “A lot of people tell me that they’ve met 100 percent of their friends here.”

While the expansion of the Downtown campus has earned Conspire more attention from the academic community as a local entrepreneurial venture, Grether said he would like to see more engagement in Phoenix from students and residents alike to build a stronger culture downtown.

“The issue culturally is that we’re all tuned into the same channels – watching the same stars do the same stupid shit,” said Grether, who has a cultural anthropology degree from ASU. “If people celebrated what was going on in their own neighborhoods or communities, then more people would be able to invest their time and energy into that.”

Ethan Brown, who lives downtown with his 9-year-old son but works as a guest activities director at a Scottsdale resort, said he considers Conspire and the downtown arts district to be his “second home.”

“We look at the big buildings over there, but those are the people that work down here and they come and go,” Brown said. “As far as the actual locals and people that are down here, the Roosevelt District and Conspire and Fifth Street – this is the actual culture and community and, I think, the heart of Phoenix.”

Brown said he would like to see people from across the Valley make more of an effort to explore downtown and support the local arts community, rather than judge it.

“Down here there is the perception of the artists that people are flighty and not living in reality, but I think there is more reality going on here than you see in the corporate climate,” he said. “Things are based more on your personality –- who you are and your character. We have a lot of characters down here.”

With plans to use the available space at Conspire more effectively, Grether said he hopes to continue providing the community with a creative outlet where Phoenicians can express themselves in a variety of ways, whether that be through art, music, food, writing or retail design.

“The cool thing with Phoenix is that it feels always to everybody kind of like a blank slate,” Grether said. “You can always just jump up and start doing something and people will take notice and you can make a lifestyle out of it.”

Contact the reporter at slsnyder@asu.edu