Mart Kalm was born in Tallinn into a family of editors. He graduated from Tallinn II Secondary School (currently Tallinn Secondary School of Science). From 1979 to 1984, he studied history and art history at Tartu University. In 1991 he received a PhD from the Central Scientific Research Institute of Theory and History of Architecture in Moscow for his thesis on the architect Alar Kotli. In 1998 he defended his second PhD (= Habilitation) at the Estonian Academy of Arts on the culture of Estonian architecture during the interwar period.
As an architectural historian, Kalm has mainly studied the work of Estonian architects in the 20th century (before and after World War II). His most important work is the voluminous “Estonian 20th Century Architecture” (2001; Grand Prix of the Estonian Cultural Endowment in 2002). He has written a monograph on architect Alar Kotli (1994; Kristjan Raud Prize) and a book about Olev Siinmaa (2011) which was accompanied by an exhibition. He was awarded the national prize in history for the compilation “History of Estonian Art”, Volume V (1900–1940), published in 2010. He has written an architectural guide, “Functionalism in Estonia: A Guidebook” (1998), and participated in the compilation of several other reference books. In recent years, Kalm has been focusing his research on the architecture of collective farms in Soviet Estonia.
Mart Kalm has been active as an architecture critic and is interested in landscape and interior architecture. In his youth, he also published art and design criticism. He has often expressed his opinion on heritage issues and composed the heritage requirements for the conservation of the Riigikogu (Parliament) building, the Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia and villas at Rüütli 1a and Lõuna 2b in Pärnu. In 2004, he produced a series of TV broadcasts, “Muinas-TV” (Heritage TV).
Kalm has been a long-time member of the Expert Council for Architectural Monuments of the National Heritage Board as well as the Head of the National Heritage Council 2006–2010. From 2010 to 2013 he was the Co-Chair of the Estonian delegation to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
Since 1992 Mart Kalm has been working at the Estonian Academy of Arts. In 2000 he became a professor at the academy, and between 1994 and 2007 he built the Institute of Art History. From 2007 to 2012 he was the Dean of the Faculty of Art and Culture. In January 2015 he became Rector of the Estonian Academy of Arts.
In 2010 Mart Kalm became the first art historian to be elected a member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. Since 2014 he has held the position of Vice-President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences.
Mart Kalm is married to the graphic artist Anu Kalm and they have two adult children, Gustav and Helga.