Volunteer work leaves impression on Oak Park art historian
Gloria Groom (center,with her hands raised) discusses her exhibition on the French impressionist painter Gauguin in 2009 in Paris. | Provided
Updated: April 8, 2013 6:46AM
OAK PARK — As an art historian specializing in 19th century French painting, Oak Park resident Gloria Groom works in a world most people only visit.
Groom, fluent in French and Spanish and “reading fluent” in Italian, regularly travels through America and Europe for her work.
She spent three years in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and the Ecole du Louvre, before coming to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1984. She now is the David and Mary Winton Green Curator of 19th Century Painting and Sculpture.
Groom has been involved in major loan exhibitions on French artists including Gauguin, Redon, Caillebotte, Renoir, Vuillard, Manet, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Groom received the honor of Chevalier des arts et lettres in 2005.
For all those accomplishments, in the mid-1990s, she and her husband felt the desire to be of service to others. Through their church, Fair Oaks Presbyterian, they found PADS.
Once a month Groom and her husband Joe Berton voluntarily venture into a stark yet fulfilling world far removed from the pleasure and privilege associated with art — the PADS meals program. Groom worked as a food server, her husband in the kitchen, cooking meals. Always, appropriately, “Shepherd’s Pie.”
Groom left kitchen service to be on the PADS board of directors, but is looking forward to returning to the kitchen.
While Groom says she’s benefitted personally from her volunteer work with PADS, she acknowledges the program has also benefitted from her unique access to resources in Chicago. She arranged to have the recent fund raising Have A Heart Gala held in the School of the Art Institute ballroom.
Groom also donated two private tours of her art exhibition, “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity,” which comes to the Art Institute on June 24 and runs through September.
The exhibition is currently at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. It had its initial opening last September at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Copies of the accompanying book are available on Amazon.
Q: It must be strange stepping from a world of Impressionist painting into a homeless shelter.
A: “It’s quite a change from what I do during the day,” she said. “It’s a very different experience when you’re in the (dining hall).”
Q: What’s the biggest difference?
A: “I’m so aware of the world I work in. And the difference between people who can’t think beyond where they’ll sleep and eat. They can’t think about indulging their aesthetic sense because they’re too busy staying alive.”
Q: What led to you joining PADS?
A: “I wanted to give back. I was very, very glad to hear there was an opportunity to work through my church.
Q: You see common values in your linguistic studies and your volunteer work?
A: “One of the things I love about (PADS) work is the ability to talk with people. My job at the Art Institute is to make art accessible. I feel the same way working for PADS.”
Q: People aren’t all that different, despite their circumstances?
A: “It’s human nature, whether we’re English or French, live on the west side of Chicago or in Paris. We all have stories to tell. We all want to communicate and know that people are listening to us.”
Q: And say you can learn from homeless people just as you do with art connoisseurs?
A: “I figured we’d have nothing in common. That was (silly). Everyone knows something more than I do about something. (The homeless) have their passions. They have their stories. It comes down to communication between humans.”
Q: How has it been serving on the PADS board?
A: “PADS is in a very good place despite less funding. With the board, I’m learning about what needs to be done. (And) I’m helping to see how we can get more people involved with PADS. Helping with connections to people downtown and the museum.”
Q: So, what’s next for you volunteer-wise?
A: “When I’m finished with my board service, I totally look forward to going back into the kitchen. I’m sure I get more out of it than the people I serve.”