Rice University will build the art center to accommodate exhibit and studio spaces along with lecture halls and a performance theater.
Carolyn Levander is Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Initiatives at Rice.
She says the university's close proximity to the museum district will allow them to form partnerships with Houston's museums and art spaces.
"The net benefit of that partnership will be profound, for not only Rice faculty and students, but for Houston as a whole. And that ultimately the goal is to make Houston a really world-class destination for those interested in the arts."
The $20 million gift will partially fund the arts center, but the university will still have to seek other grants and private donations.
Levander says the university is already formalizing agreements with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Menil to exhibit works from those organizations' permanent collections.
"Houston is fortunate to have such a dynamic and varied commitment to the arts across different forms and different venues. And so we're very hopeful that we will find individuals or foundations that are interested in supporting this signal opportunity to make the university a full partner with some of our area arts museums."
The 50,000-square-foot facility will open in 2015.