On 12 November 1991, the Supreme Council of the Estonian Republic decided that the government should guarantee the construction of a new building for the Art Museum of Estonia.
In 1993-1994, an international architectural competition for the new building’s design was organised. The Union of Estonian Architects commissioned the Looveeri Architectural Office to prepare the competition. Since the architectural competitions for buildings for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art (Kiasma) were taking place at the same time, the technical conditions and space programmes for these projects were thoroughly examined, along with international architectural competition legislation and the standards for the construction of art museums recommended by the International Union of Architects (UIA) and the International Council on Museums (ICOM).
Architects from ten countries participated in the competition, and 233 designs were submitted. The largest number of participants (over a hundred) came from Finland, and all seven prizes were awarded to Finns. The decision of the international panel was unanimous, and the design by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori, “Circulos”, was declared the winner.
Marika Valk, the former director of the Art Museum of Estonia has recalled, “I met Pekka Vapaavuori for the first time on 15 April 1994 at the awards ceremony for the winner of the architectural competition for the Art Museum of Estonia’s new building. The competition winner was a young Finn with a long braid who had recently graduated from university. I said at the time that I was very glad that Pekka was so young – considering the hundred-year tradition of building the Art Museum of Estonia, perhaps he would even see the building completed.”
Then, the battle to have the building constructed began. It took years to overcome all the obstacles and it was not until 2002 that an excavator started work at the foot of Lasnamäe Hill.
On 13 May 1994, a contract was signed between the Art Museum and the architect Pekka Vapaavuori to continue the design work. This was only possible because a cooperation agreement was signed at the same time between the Art Museum of Estonia and the Finnish Rakennushallinto (currently Engel OY), based on which their specialists provided free consultations on the plans for the new museum building.
From 1995 to 2001, the specialists from Engel OY advised both the museum employees and the designers, and carried out in-service training. Among other things, Engel OY specialises in the specifics of museum construction. It has reconstructed the Ateneum in Helsinki, the Museum of Applied Arts and the History Museum, as well as designing and being the project manager for the construction of Kiasma.
In 1999, the preliminary project for the building was completed without using any budgetary resources. Pekka Vapaavuori, Engel OY, the Estkonsult engineering firm from Estonia and the Olaf Granlund OY engineering firm from Finland, as well as the museum’s employees, participated.
From 1995 to 1998, the project received no government financing. The Art Museum continued to resolve problems related to the new museum. On 5 November 1996, the Riigikogu (parliament) of the Republic of Estonia passed a resolution regarding the construction of the Estonian Academy of Music, the Art Museum of Estonia, and the Estonian National Museum, which specified that the construction of the new building for the Art Museum of Estonia was to begin in 1999. This resolution placed an obligation on the Government of Estonia to find budgetary and non-budgetary resources. This resolution was also fulfilled to a certain extent because, in 1999 and 2000, the design work was financed from the national budget.
In 2001, the Ministries of Finance and Culture worked out a new scheme for financing the construction of the new museum building, which was based on an amendment to the Gambling Act, passed by the Riigikogu on 13 March 2002. In 2001, the Foundation for the Construction of the Art Museum was organised by the government, with the assignment to continue the design work on the new museum building at a professional level and to start the construction in 2002. The construction of the new Art Museum building was completed in September 2005.
In order to be sure of the correctness of the Art Museum’s new building’s parameters, the museum invited the international consultancy firm Lord Cultural Resources (headed by Barry Lord, an international museum expert from Canada) to review the project, and the work was given a positive assessment.
In 2004, the new museum also got its name. A competition was organised to name the museum and from the many different suggestions that were made, Kumu – kunsti muuseum (art museum in Estonian) – was chosen as most suitable.