Written by John Eischeid
An Iconic Art World Empire…
The name still glows in neon just off Canal Street in New York City, though now obscured by window glare. The glass on the doors reflects late-model, luxury SUVs as the words “Pearl Paint” smolder in red and white beneath the vans’ image. The sign once hung on the building’s similarly colored facade as a welcome mat to artists of all levels and incomes. Now it’s ensconced in a vacant lobby for posh rentals that go for about $14,000 a month.
On the surface, the sign is a tribute to the building’s historic place in the New York arts scene as the home of Pearl Paint, a creative hub where any artist could get just about anything and get it on the cheap. To those who remember the sign, however, it’s a dubious homage.
“I think it’s exploitative of a name that a family worked pretty much a century to build, and it doesn’t belong to them,” says Darren Perlmutter, whose grandfather, Louis, founded the store in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, deriving the store’s name from his surname. Over the decades the business went from a struggling housepaint store to one of the most prominent brands in art supplies, with 24 stores nationwide and James Rosenquist and Red Grooms as regular customers.
The Canal Street location was one of the last bastions against the flood tide of IRS investigations, bankruptcy, unsellable inventory and empty shelves. It was also there, in a no-man’s land between SoHo, TriBeCa and Chinatown—and with a steady stream of traffic feeding the Lincoln Tunnel—that the store got its foothold in the arts community in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pearl Paint’s Rise to the Top
“SoHo was the Williamsburg of that era,” says Andru Eron. From 1980 to 1982, Eron worked at the Canal Sreet store while attending Parsons School of Design as an art student. “SoHo was rapidly transitioning into the boutique ghetto that it is now—very rough and tumble in the ’70s, pretty much abandoned at night, since all the sweatshops and factories closed at 5 or so. Many artists were covered by Loft Laws [laws benefiting those living in what were once commercial or factory spaces] and were protected.”
“The artist-supply side of Pearl started when my dad set out plastic tables, fold-out tables with paint brushes and whatnot, to try and bring in extra rent money,” says Darren, Robert’s son, who started sweeping floors at the store at age 6. “So I guess it was really my dad that started the art-supply side of the business.”
As the demand for art materials grew, Pearl’s supplies expanded. “All these specialty artists started moving into the area and making specialty requests for supplies, and we just decided to start carrying it all,” says Darren. “So by accommodating all these different artists, over time the product line evolved into what was apparently the largest in the world.”
An Anchor for Artists
“It was sort of an anchor in the neighborhood for artists,” says Arthur Cohen, an artist and retired art instructor who has lived in SoHo since 1989. He started shopping at the Pearl Paint Canal Street store right after its opening and continued to do so until just before its closure. “Every time you went there, you would meet somebody,” he says. In Cohen’s case, that often meant friends and former students.
“When Robert started the business, there really wasn’t any competition,” says Robert’s wife, Rosalind (Roz) Perlmutter, who also helped Robert manage the business from the early 1980s to around 2000, when she took over. “Nobody discounted [merchandise] in that industry. He was a trendsetter.”
The business expanded. “When I met my husband,” Roz says, “there were four stores, and we expanded to 24 in 20 years.” She points out that she and her husband had opened all the locations with their own finances.
Despite the rosy veneer, misplaced finances were chipping away at the store’s foundation. As far back as the 1980s, Eron had noticed, “There was definitely a feeling of, at the top, we’ll do whatever it takes to get over”—though Eron declined to give any details.
Cracks in the facade became apparent in 1996, when a box broke open in a UPS shipping facility, revealing thousands of dollars in cash. An ensuing investigation found that the package had been sent from New York to Florida, where Robert Perlmutter was building a home. Further investigation revealed that $2,000 to $10,000 in cash had been skimmed daily from Pearl Paint’s proceeds, and some offenses stretched back 15 years. Robert Perlmutter ultimately struck a plea agreement to pay $6 million in taxes, penalties and interest to the IRS. At his sentencing in 2000, he also received a $75,000 fine and a three-year prison sentence for tax fraud.
“The great tank started when my dad went to prison,” says Darren. His mother took over business operations and, according to Darren, was fairly successful until the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when everything crashed.
“Dad was pretty much powerless,” says Darren. “He was forbidden by the IRS from doing any work for the shop and couldn’t have any input. My mom, in her best intentions, brought in a whole bunch of suit types, which, when you bring suit types into the art world, you’re going to have different [priorities]. They extorted and mismanaged and stole and failed to replenish the merchandise and kept poor accounts of everything.”
The chain declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. “The demise of the business was apparently the combined effect of a number of things,” says Roz. “It was the leadership that I had appointed, a couple of people in particular. Many things happened at once. The CFO passed, the attorney died, my husband got cancer, and the economy was in recession, so we decided to liquidate.” Roz also agrees that overhead, such as rent, was a factor.
After Serra’s departure in 2010, the store was managed by “kind of a think tank,” according to Darren. “It was me and my mother and everyone else at corporate grabbing at straws while drowning, trying to figure out if there was anything left to do, but at that juncture, there wasn’t.”
They did bring the chain out of bankruptcy by closing all but the five most profitable locations, cutting staff, renegotiating leases, selling off inventory and paying off creditors. However, the store faced the Herculean task of refilling the copious stock of art supplies that had made it famous. The staff still found themselves with sales quotas and few products that customers were willing to buy.
“There was a lot of pressure on sales—to push a lot on people. It was harder than doing advertising sales, surprisingly,” says Kara Duffus, who worked in the Los Angeles location from 2012 to 2013 and had sold advertising before then. “People would come in and they would want black and white paint, and we wouldn’t even have that,” she says.
“The damage was done,” said Darren, “We were already losing several thousand dollars a day. The business was no longer sustainable, no matter what we did.”
Darren decided to leave before the business deteriorated too much. “I was primed my entire life to be at the head of Pearl, and that was ripped out from under me. My father was dying from cancer. I was suffering from a horrible bout of depression, which happens from time to time,” he says. “I had a feeling that there would be negative press, and I didn’t want to be the poster boy anymore, so I backed off a little bit and let the ship sink.”
“In 2013, my husband had cancer,” says Roz, “and we decided not to continue with the five locations. The industry had changed dramatically.”
The New York location closed in May, 2014, and the final closure, in Fort Lauderdale, came the following August. “I saw disappointment” says Darren, describing his father as he witnessed the store’s last few days. “Shame as the stores kept closing, and then, when the last one closed, he was so relieved. There was nothing left to fail anymore.”
Darren now works in his own creative studio in Fort Lauderdale, though he often spends his free time thinking of ways to bring Pearl back. “It’s a brand that needs to be alive,” he says.
“No matter what, Pearl Paint was a home for the artists,” says Steven Taveras, who worked at the store from 2001 to 2010. “No matter if you were rich or poor, you know, if you were a gutterpunk, if you were a preppy boy or kid, if you were gay or you were straight, [if] you were anything. … We were very welcoming over there, and I think that that’s why it stayed for so long. It will always have an indelible mark in Chinatown. Even when you pass by it and you see that building, you’re, like, ‘That was Pearl Paint.’”
A version of this story appeared in Artists Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.