Our History

The Buttonwood Tree opened its doors as a storefront bookstore and performance space in Middletown’s storied North End in 1989. Begun by our first director, Wesleyan alumna Susan Eastman Allison and her husband, the DJ and radio personality, Stephan Allison, it was the first such place in the city. Middletown has and has had many cultural enterprises over the years, but The Buttonwood Tree is unique in that company.

In 1990, the city’s Commission on the Arts approached the Allisons with the concept of turning the bookstore into a non-profit arts organization to serve the North End and all of Middletown as a hub for the Arts. In 1991 Ibis Books was transformed into North End Arts Rising, Inc. (NEAR, Inc.) still carrying “The Buttonwood Tree” name.

For over 20 years now, NEAR has served greater Middletown and beyond with low-cost/free entertainment and enrichment. Our funding has come from state and local arts grants, foundation grants, individual contributions, box-office donations and book sales.

There have been challenges along the way. A fire in 1995 forced us to move from our original storefront location on Rapallo Avenue to temporary quarters at Odd fellows Playhouse before finding a new home in what had been the lobby of the historic Arrigoni Hotel; now a subsidized housing facility. As it happens, this space has become famous. It is utterly singular and inviting, even though this location and our neighbors (St. Vincent De Paul’s Soup Kitchen and The Community Health Center) have been a problem for some in the city. As well, the general economic collapse of 2000 hit us especially hard, obliging The Buttonwood Tree to cut the full-time directorship to a less than half-time position, though the number of hours didn’t change!

Fortunately we have had outstanding people: Jennifer Hawkins, Ann Sabin and Kisha McWilliams Michael as well as our current director, Anne-Marie Cannata, to shoulder the load. Fortunately we have a committed, diverse and talented board of directors who have served over the years – through good times and hard times.