The discussion about whether Estonian art needed a museum and what kind of a museum it should be started as early as the beginning of the 20th century. Complicated times and the outbreak of World War I put a stop to any such plans. The thought of establishing an art museum was realised only in 1919, when the Estonian Museum in Tallinn was founded (the name Art Museum of Estonia was introduced in 1929).

During the First Republic of Estonia

The Art Museum of Estonia was established on 17 November 1919 under the name “Estonian Museum in Tallinn”. Until 1929, the museum was located in Kadriorg Palace, a former summer residence of the Russian emperor Peter the Great, which now houses one of the museum’s branches, the Kadriorg Art Museum. The museum’s collections and displays included ethnographic material, objects of cultural value and artworks. As early as 1920, visitors could admire the works of contemporary artists as well.

In 1929, the building was refurbished as a presidential palace and the museum was moved to the city centre, at 4 Narva Road. Unfortunately, the museum burnt down as a result of the bombing in March 1944. The fire destroyed more than three thousand valuable exhibits, along with the library and archive. Luckily, the majority of the collections (nearly 10,000 works of art) had been evacuated to schoolhouses and manor houses in the countryside in the preceding months and thus did not suffer any harm.

Soviet Era in Kadriorg Palace

In 1946, the rooms in the Kadriorg Palace were returned to the art museum, which stayed there for the duration of the Soviet occupation. During the Soviet era, many limits were set on exhibition activities and the presently highly important international dimension was almost completely lacking in the museum’s operations; nevertheless, the employees still managed to organise both art historical and contemporary displays of artworks, do research and publish catalogues.

The era also saw the opening of the first branch museums: in 1980, the Museum of Applied Art was opened (it became autonomous in 2004, and is currently called the Museum of Applied Art and Design), in 1983, the Adamson-Eric Museum was opened, followed in 1984 by the Niguliste Museum and the Kristjan Raud House Museum (closed in 2008).

The Era of Regaining Independence: Waiting for a New Building

After the independent Republic of Estonia was restored in 1991, the doors of Kadriorg Palace had to be closed to the public due to the poor condition of the building. Extensive renovation work began. In the meanwhile, the museum was given the Knighthood House on Toompea Hill as a temporary home, where a new permanent exhibition was opened in 1993. In 1996, the museum’s activities spread to the first floor of the Rotermann Salt Storage, which remained the exhibition space for contemporary art until 2005. After the buildings of the Kadriorg palace ensemble had been renovated, it was possible to use them as a museum again, so in 1997 the former kitchen house of the palace was opened as the Mikkel Museum, whose collection consisted of foreign works of art donated by the collector Johannes Mikkel. In 2000, the restored Kadriorg Palace was reopened; however, it was no longer the headquarters of the Art Museum of Estonia, but a branch museum of foreign art: the Kadriorg Art Museum.

The topic of building a structure specifically for the museum had been discussed since the 1930s. In 1936, an international architecture contest was even held, which was won by the Estonian architects Edgar Johan Kuusik and Erich Jacoby. World War II, however, ended the construction plans.

After regaining independence, the issue was raised once more. The international architecture contest held in 1993 was won by the Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori. Construction work on the building he designed began in 2002 in Kadriorg, on the hillside at the end of Weizenbergi Street.aastal.

The Kumu Art Museum Is Completed: the First New Museum Building in Eastern Europe

The Kumu Art Museum – the new headquarters of the Art Museum of Estonia – was opened in 2006. In 2008, the Kumu Art Museum competed against 140 other candidates and received the European Museum of the Year Award EMYA, which is given out by the European Museum Forum. The jury commended the museum’s new approach to its activities and, in particular, the active inclusion of the public. In 2014, the European Museum Forum Annual Conference and the European Museum of the Year Award Ceremony (EMYA 2014) took place in Kumu.

The newly-opened building allowed the museum to expand its activities to a considerable extent. The conservation department is furnished with modern technology, and the auditorium has top-level equipment for holding conferences, concerts and dramatic performances. A spacious store and café offer museum-goers added options in spending their spare time. The opening of the Kumu Art Museum energised all of the branch museums, so that the Art Museum of Estonia rapidly developed into a modern organisation with extensive international collaboration relationships.