NO ESCAPE: Barry O’Farrell, Tim Owen and Andrew Cornell in Laman Street, Newcastle, ahead of the exhibition opening. – Picture by Peter StoopHE came to open an unprecedented exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery, but last night NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell couldn’t escape what is undoubtedly Newcastle’s most debated issue.

Mr O’Farrell was met outside the gallery, where he officially opened the Australian Modern Masterpieces exhibition, by a smattering of Save Our Figs supporters who gave out a loud cheer as he stepped from his car.

There’s a Sydney fig fight, too

Rather than turn and walk in the other direction or immerse himself in his entourage, Mr O’Farrell quickly paced over to the group.

He thanked them for continuing to fight for their beloved fig trees before a spokesman for Save Our Figs handed him a letter calling for his continued support.

Mr O’Farrell then abandoned the idea of entering the gallery through the back door and walked with a representative of the group to greet another collection of supporters on the corner of Darby Street.

The short stroll from there to the entrance of the gallery took the Premier down Laman Street and under the canopy of iconic fig trees.

The letter handed to Mr O’Farrell provided a list of the independent experts who have looked into the risk posed by the figs and asked the Premier to ‘‘actively explore and pursue any reasonable means … to assist the Newcastle community to bring about a more reasonable approach to this important matter’’.

The Save Our Figs group also thanked Mr O’Farrell for his attempts to assist Newcastle City Council in resolving the issue.

The exhibition paired 30 pieces of art from the NSW Art Gallery with works from the same artist from Newcastle’s own collection.

More than 500 people attended the official opening of the exhibition that featured the 1948 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of the late Margaret Olley by Newcastle born artist William Dobell.

Gallery director Ron Ramsey said he was ‘‘thrilled’’ with the turnout.