Jewels from the country's regional art collections remind us that free access to galleries is a right worth fighting for. By Andrew Lambirth
A magnificent exhibition, entitled "The Art Treasures of England; The Regional Collections", opens this week at the Royal Academy. Numbering more than 400 works of art from 100 museums and galleries around England, it demonstrates the cultural wealth of the regions. This is too often forgotten or ignored. If you live in London, it's easy to fall prey to metropolitan chauvinism: the centre is where it all happens. And the public perception of regional collections is not entirely reassuring: "provincial" is taken to mean narrow - in the sense of being confined to local interests - ignorant even. Of course, it must be admitted that some small museums or galleries have unchanging displays and unimaginative keepers, and that the experience of visiting, let alone revisiting, them is a tedious one. But it need not be so.

This exhibition examines how the regional collections were formed, from the university endowments of the 17th century (the Ashmolean in Oxford was founded in 1683), to the 19th-century cathedrals of culture, funded by private and public money, and thence into our own century. Those great art galleries and museums were emblems of civic pride, but what are they now? If there is no spare cash to buy new works of art for the collection, how do curators keep the place a living and contributing reality?

Perhaps by reinterpreting their collections, changing the emphases of displays, exhibiting works in new (even surprising) juxtapositions. The important thing is not to be tempted into selling off those parts of the permanent collection no longer held in critical favour. Fashions always change, the once-popular become popular again, and the Victorian paintings relegated to the basement storeroom in the 1930s have to be dusted off and returned to pride of place. What might once have been sold for a few pounds is seen to be priceless.

There is more money available to purchase new works than is commonly thought. Although local authorities are increasingly restricted in their funding, there exist certain bodies set up specifically to help with purchases, such as the National Art Collections Fund, the Contemporary Art Society and the Heritage Lottery Fund. In addition, there are the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Henry Moore Foundation. However, many galleries must be chary of making new acquisitions when they can barely maintain or properly display their existing collections.

This exhibition raises a number of interesting issues. Why, for instance; was the 15th-century Sienese Crucifixion by Giovanni de Paolo not on show at Rochdale Art Gallery for 17 years? Was it simply forgotten about, or was it a matter of taste? Was there insufficient space? Is the painting not a good example? At the Academy, we will get the chance to decide for ourselves.

Are there really more museums than the country can afford to run? The Hatton Gallery in the University of Newcastle was nearly forced to close last year. It was saved at the last minute by a bequest from the popular novelist and local-girl-made-good, Catherine Cookson. Will this be a temporary stay of execution, or will the collection now be safe in perpetuity? It is outrageous that we seem to care so little for our cultural heritage. Art is a civilising force, and yet we constantly fail to acknowledge it.

Many museum collections developed out of learned societies which initially tended to be rather elitist and private by nature. Later, money was raised mostly by subscription or lottery (nothing changes). The heyday of the regional collections was between 1870 and 1914, and a considerable proportion of 19th-century collecting was scholarly in the extreme. Dealers scoured the continent buying high quality examples of whatever was popular - for instance, 17th-century European art. These were then supplied to the great and growing museums in Manchester, Liverpool or Bristol. But the real bargains were to be had only by those who could see beyond the limits of fashionable taste. The wonderful El Greco, Tears of St Peter, in the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, County Durham, cost only pounds 8 in the second half of the 19th century. Joining it at the RA on loan from the same collection are a Goya, a Tiepolo, a Boucher and the 15th-century tempera and gold panel of A Miracle of the Holy Sacrament by Sassetta. These loans are all due to the far-sightedness of a husband-and-wife team, John and Josephine Bowes, dedicated and enterprising collectors.

The provinces were competing with London, but doing so effectively. For instance, one of the most famous images of the 19th century is And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1878) by William Frederick Yeames. Is this in a London collection? It is not. It usually hangs proudly in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, though for the duration of this exhibition it will grace the Academy's walls instead, along with works from the Walker by Poussin, Rubens and Tintoretto.

During the late 18th and continuing into the 19th century, Liverpool had grown rich. One of its more worthy sons, William Roscoe, a banker and social reformer active against the slave trade, built up a collection of some distinction. Against the tide of fashion, he bought so-called "primitive" paintings, pre-1500 work, when the 17th century was still all the rage. In 1816, his bank went into liquidation and his collection was sold. But 37 of the primitives were bought by subscription and put on permanent public display in the Liverpool Royal Institution; these pictures survive to this day in the Walker Art Gallery.

The merchant princes of Liverpool saw their city as a rival to the glories of Florence or Venice. The great commercial cities of Victorian England were closely modelled on Renaissance precepts, and art played a large part in this sense of identity. If you were a town of any appreciable standing, you had to have your own gallery or museum (or two, in some instances).

Yet municipal galleries were often slow to take off. In 1873, when the Walker Art Gallery opened, it owned only one painting. The building was the philanthropic gift of Alderman Walker, a brewer. Was it coincidence that this largesse occurred at a time when the temperance movement was strong in the city, and when Alderman Walker aspired to be mayor? There is no doubt that the gift smoothed his path. Other brewers elsewhere followed his example - the Mappins of Sheffield, for instance, and Alexander Laing in Newcastle (a very fine Holman Hunt of Isabella and the Pot of Basil comes now to the RA from the Laing Art Gallery). This very real, though no doubt variously motivated, philanthropy was, in large part, based on Liberal and Nonconformist ideals. A respectable proportion of Victorians were keen to do their duty.

If art galleries were there to inspire the layman, it was a short step to suggesting they should be open after working hours so that ordinary people could get to them. Sunday was the cause of much dissension. Many said all museums should be closed on the Lord's day, others that they should be opened as a useful source of ameliorative instruction. Museums were intended to delight and improve the visitor's mind. They were certainly more popular then than in this century. And statistics reveal that visitors were not just local, but people who actually travelled to see the art. Admittedly, there was a lack of alternative amenities and attractions, but there was also a strong desire for self-improvement. Lecture programmes were well-attended, and, no doubt, the public was also encouraged by the universal principle of free admission. To cite but one example, in the first few months after Sheffield's Mappin Art Gallery opened in July 1887, 6,000 visitors would regularly pass through in the space of three hours on a Sunday.

As the concept of art galleries developed, the interiors changed. Initially constructed of bare boards and railings, galleries were made more visually appealing and physically comfortable in the Edwardian period. More care was taken with hanging the pictures and with their presentation. But it wasn't always easy for the more advanced curators to buy what they wanted. In 1912, the art critic and museum director Frank Rutter set up the Leeds Art Collections Fund to enable him to acquire avant-garde work by the likes of Orpen, Sargent and William Nicholson, for which the Leeds city councillors would not vote funds. This was one of the first Friends organisations, other examples of which were to spring up elsewhere.

After World War I, art galleries gradually declined in popularity. Victorian painting, which was the mainstay of so many collections, had grown unpopular. The founding enthusiasm had gone out of the project. By 1932, the Yorkshire Post could thunder that Leeds City Art Gallery "ranges from dingy to dirty, from dilapidated to dangerous". Whence now civic pride? Museums seemed to have lost their purpose. Still, art galleries were being set up during the 1920s and 1930s - in Stockport, Hove, Darlington and Southampton. Not all hope was lost. Key individuals always made a difference. Lord Leverhulme, of Sunlight soap fame, had devoted himself to collecting 18th- century English painting with particular emphasis on Reynolds, Gainsborough and Romney. Also Pre-Raphaelites such as Millais and Burne-Jones. To house his collection, he founded the splendid Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight, Liverpool, in 1922.

Ten years later, the Barber institute was set up at Birmingham University as a teaching aid to the study of art history. The wealthy and generous Lady Barber enabled the institute to make acquisitions of National Gallery quality. Examine, for instance, the startling Degas painting, Jockeys before the Race, all odd perspectives and crucial cropping, In the 1940s, Swindon and Scarborough gained municipal galleries. From the 1960s, university collections began to gather speed again, particularly at Hull, Essex, Lancaster and Norwich. At the latter, the Sainsbury Centre now houses the wide-ranging collections of Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury, including work by Bacon, Noare and Giacometti, as well as African art. In recent years, the Tate Gallery has established outposts in Liverpool and St Ives, but there are not enough new museums. Budgets are slashed, staff demoralised and forced to operate what is known as "crisis management".

Different galleries have specialised in different things. If a number have been hesitant about collecting modern art, and particularly what's produced abroad, there will always be the reassuring exception. Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum maintains a policy of buying American and British Pop Art. Swindon, too, has built up a highly respected collection of contemporary British art, which includes the extraordinary semi-abstract mood painting by Howard Hodgkin, Gramophone (1964-66). Other excellent examples of modernism on loan to the RA include Kurt Schwitters's mixed-media construction of found objects and paint, entitled Flight (1945), and Eduardo Paolozzi's provocative bronze monster, Large Frog, Version II (1958). The Schwitters come from Abbot Hall Art Gallery at Kendal in Cumbria, the Paolozzi from the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

Where are the contemporary equivalents of the great Victorian philanthropists? When Charles Saatchi gives a young artist like Jenny Saville the time and money to paint unhindered, yet also wants to own her work and then exhibit it to a mounting chorus of approval, is this a disinterested act? Is it philanthropy or battery-farming? Does society benefit? The late Jonathan Silver, on the other hand, a successful businessman who openly wanted to give something back to the community, founded a successful arts centre at Saltaire, near Bradford. His friend David Hockney responded so enthusiastically to the project because it was to the public good rather than for private gain.

Likewise with J Paul Getty II, who has not only given pounds 50 million to the National Gallery but also helped to save Canova's famous sculpture, The Three Graces, from being sold abroad. More's the shame that admission charges at the National are even under discussion. Can you blame Sir Denis Mahon, the great scholar on Guercino, for stipulating that no gallery that tries to charge the public to see its permanent display will be bequeathed anything from his superb collection? He rightly regards it as our birthright to have free access to the public collections that we as a nation own. The Government has a weighty responsibility to observe.

Interestingly, the Art Treasures exhibition takes place at the Royal Academy, which is entirely self-supporting and receives no public funding. It is the Academy, which in recent years has mounted some or the best exhibitions to be seen in London (or abroad), that now draws the public's attention to the nation-at-large's art glories, to the richness and diversity of regional art possessions and also to the financial plight of their museums and galleries. The exhibition is generously sponsored by Peterborough United Football Club - the Posh to its fans. This is an imaginative move, for both football teams and art galleries are manifestations of civic pride, and the idea of what are often construed as polar opposites coming together is a refreshing and welcome one. To add further relevance to the partnership, Peterborough City Museum and Art Gallery is lending two paintings by the 18th-century Dutchman, Jan van Huysum, to the Academy's exhibition.

Is it an unholy alliance, between football and art? Will charabancs of football supporters turn up at the Royal Academy, waving banners and chanting? Will the exhibition prove a new outlet for hooligans (the recent defacing of the portrait of Myra Hindley in the "Sensation" show might set a precedent), or will it offer an antidote? When museums were first opened to the public in the 19th century, there was widespread anxiety that the crowds would destroy the art on view. When their behaviour was very much the reverse, praise for the civilising effect of art became general.

As a supplement to the exhibition, a 36-page guide to the regional collections has been published by the RA with support from the Museums and Galleries Commission and the National Art Collections Fund. The aim is to encourage people to explore local museums and to discover for themselves the delights on offer. The guide will be free to every visitor to the exhibition, and distributed nationally. It is a handy, well-illustrated pocket manual, a useful introduction to a vast subject. It is worth making a detour to a regional collection, for the few undoubted masterpieces, but principally for the unexpected encounter with good minor works always present in a collection of this sort. It is this kind of rewarding experience that makes it essential for our museums and art galleries to stay open and stay free

"The Art Treasures of England; The Regional Collections" is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-300 5676), from 22 January to 13 April. Full-price tickets, pounds 7.

One of the most famous images of the 19th century, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, by William Frederick Yeames (top), normally hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Fish Sale, by Stanhope Forbes (above) hangs in Plymouth

Pre-Raphaelite master Holman Hunt's Isabella and the Pot of Basil (above) is on loan from the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle; El Greco's Tears of St Peter (left) was acquired by the Bowes Museum, Castle Barnard, for pounds 8

Top: Degas's Jockeys Before the Race (from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, the University of Birmingham); above, Gustave Courbet's Les Demoiselles de Village (Leeds City Art Gallery); right, The Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Peter and Mark and a Donor by Giovanni Bellini (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

Top: Stanley Spencer's Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors (from the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham); top right, Portrait of a Young Man and the Visions of Saint Hubert by Jan Mostaert (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool); above, Millais's The Black Brunswicker (Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight)

Howard Hodgkin's Gramophone (above) and Francis Bacon's Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch (main picture) are both examples of British art from the 1960s held in regional collections (Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and Manchester City Art Gallery, respectively)